Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

Do I Ask Too Many Questions?

I work with a lot of smart, committed, enthusiastic people. That simple fact makes it hard NOT to solicit feedback wherever possible.

(As a side note, they’re also fun, funny and charming people, which means I definitely talk too much in general because I enjoy my conversations with them. But that’s a separate post about how I need to start looking to see if people are wearing earbuds before talking to them…).

In regards to ‘questions’ however, it’s more difficult, because we all sit together, everyone is willing to help most times and they have incredibly valuable thoughts to contribute to any decision. But there’s a point of diminishing return that is challenging to measure, because efficiency requires decisions to be made – and sometimes made solo, quickly.

As things now stand, I solicit a lot of discussion and feedback. Which helps me a great deal, but potentially helps my colleagues less. I’m looking for approaches to help walk that line if anyone has some. For now, I think I’m going to only ask one question of a person a day. Basically, force prioritization on myself.

If I can only have someone’s full attention for one minute, what would I need to have answered?

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.

What’s an LOL worth?

Clay Shirky gave his great talk about cognitive surplus on TED Talks recently. His definition of “cognitive surplus” is shared online work that people do with “spare” brain cycles. Things like editing Wikipedia- things that build a better world, using the collaboration of many to improve things. (Very generally) Shirky says we are driven to “engagement” (editing a Wikipedia page) rather than “consumption” (watching TV) because of intrinsic motivation.

In seemingly unrelated news, Improv Everywhere, the undercover comedy agents who “cause scenes of chaos and joy in public places,” released a new video yesterday- a reenactment of a scene between Darth Vader and Princess Leia…but on a New York City subway car.

I love Improv Everywhere. I love them because they put something magical and unexpected in front of an audience that only expects the mundane…and they change the rest of the day for those people. They take what is normal and they transform it- they mix and match things and places we know with things and places that don’t belong there. And it is 100% positive and affirming humor. There is only joy in their performance- a performance that depends upon the reaction of the audience as validation that they are part of something special that is happening, right now.

And right now their performances are important, because I think we all have a great deal of in-person emotional surplus. The cognitive surplus that Shirky talks about is important- it’s people generously giving their time and effort to help build something that makes the world better. And we feel rewarded. But at the same time, I think the reward we feel from those interactions is less rewarding than the reward of in-person generosity and engagement. We are becoming more accustomed to online stimuli as a means of emotional fuel but like a drug, the high is less and less each time and more and more online stimuli is needed. The reason is that online tribes can’t replace in-person ones.

This isn’t a ding on the internet! Obviously, I’m a heavy user, and the positives associated with the online communities we’ve built are incredible. But I think dependence on these interactions have left us craving personal interactions. Our cognitive surplus can leave an emotional gap if we’re not careful. People want to react positively to something real. We want to laugh with a stranger. We want to connect on a subway. Humans used to have a tribe of 150 people that we saw everyday, that we laughed with everday. We now have much larger tribes- but how many of those people do we laugh with in-person on a daily basis? What’s an LOL worth?

So maybe we crave these personal interactions. And isn’t THIS a great way to have them?

Education Needs More Chinese Resturants

Charles Leadbeater’s TED presentation “Education Innovation in the Slums” blew me away; I’ve been thinking about it since I saw it a week ago.

The man spent years researching innovation in education (and the need for it) and his speech is drawn from the innovation and change he saw happen in places as challenging as Rio and Kibera slums. What was most striking to me is how important innovation and change in education is for not only the developing world, but for first world countries as well. From his presentation:

  • Motivation: The challenge, as Leadbeater points out, is that education in the developing world can’t afford the luxury of time in motivating students- “Education in these settings works by pull, not push.” Curriculum and compulsory education won’t motivate students to learn, because they offer rewards that don’t apply in the developing world.
    • In the developed world, info was pushed on us and we tried to learn it well so we could move on. We did so because the motivations fit (or we thought they did).
      • Extrinsically there was a payoff 10 years down the road (do well now, get into good college, get high-paying job later).
      • Intrinsically there was a payoff- our self worth (and the value we see others put on us) was linked to performance.
    • In the slums of Rio and Kibera, though, that doesn’t work! Payoff for education 10 years down the road doesn’t apply when you have no food or both your parents have died of AIDS.
      • Motivation must therefore be different- education must contain information that is necessary and useful now, in this moment, and it must be engaging. Education that succeeds in the slums begins with the premise that you must engage students before they will learn.
  • Chinese Restaurants: To accomplish this on a worldwide scale, a “Chinese-restaurant” model of education is necessary. Schools shouldn’t follow the McDonalds franchise model (exactly the same, precise and dependable everywhere) but rather the Chinese-restaurant model of growth.
    • Leadbeater talks about Madhav Chavan, who helped found Pratham, and how he came up with this model. Typically you don’t see Chinese chains, but you see restaurants everywhere. And yet, despite that they are not chains, everyone knows what to expect inside, although there will be subtle differences. Schools will feature new and different ways of learning that will catch on and spread across to other cultures, in slightly different ways.
    • He points out we spend a lot of money on sustaining the model of education we have in places like the U.S. (trying to improve it by sinking billions of dollars into it.) What we need is innovation in how we do it.
    • “We need a global wave of social entrepreneurship to create highly motivating, low cost ways to scale in the developing world.”

I thought this was an amazing speech and it is frightening in how it applies even to countries like the U.S. I won’t go into details to argue about for education in the U.S. and how it’s failing- suffice it to say that I think most of us can agree it needs to change. Not only does it need to change because it’s not working, but it needs to change because the world that students are entering is vastly different as well. Extrinsic motivation in the United States must change to mirror our circumstances. Seth Godin writes in his excellent and inspiring new book “Linchpin” that we have been indoctrinated in a system that has failed us. We went to school believing that if we did well, we would find good jobs. If we found good jobs, those companies would take care of us. We would rise through the company, be rewarded and have a pension.

None of that is true anymore. You don’t get paid for showing up, you aren’t sure of a promotion, and your company won’t take care of you in the future. The world has changed; if it weren’t already dead, this recession killed it. And if that extrinsic motivation no longer exists, then why should we learn?

Just as the developing countries need to change their method of teaching, so do we. Seth Godin thinks we need to teach two things: (1) solve interesting problems (2) lead. I think it may be a few more (Cameron Herold gives an interesting TED talk about teaching kids to be entrepreneurs) but regardless of what it is, it has to change.

The world is no longer the same- why do we continue to reward educational achievements that don’t connect to reality? Shouldn’t these things align? Don’t we need them to?

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:

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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

Ride the Train, See the Culture (India Post #2)

Took me a week longer to get to this than I thought….and it didn’t help that I kept falling asleep at 9:30 every night…..

Last post I talked about the kaizen and later this week I’ll talk about entrepreneurship in the slum we visited, but today I’ll post a little about the cultural aspects of our visit . As we were in the plant all week working, our tourism was limited to the Sunday after we arrived and the Sat/Sun following the week of work (we flew out Sun night). Rather than give you the play-by-play, which would be boring, I thought I would pull out some of the more interesting highlights and cultural differences, in no particular order. To put it simply, though, India blew my mind.

I’ve posted all my pictures on Picasa- here’s the link if you’d like to look. I’ll also call out a few specific ones below.

Train Rides: On the suggestion of one of our group, we jumped on the train that went through Mumbai, and I’m glad we did- it was my favorite part of the that day. I took a pretty good video of it –  the train has fully open doors so you can lean out, which I do while filming, and then give a quick pan around the compartment. (see India Train Ride Below)

The woman who is patting the man’s head about 15 seconds in is a hijra– a “third gender”. This could encompass a hermaphrodite, a eunuch, a transvestite, and any variation of a number of themes that deal with a middle ground between traditional male and female. While everyone we met told us that Hijra are considered good luck omens, and it is unlucky to refuse them small change, or berate them (and you might get cursed in return), they are very low caste, and are not allowed to work “normal” jobs and are kept removed from “normal” culture in their own living groups. A few outside reports indicate systemic violence against hijra, but I don’t have enough information to speak accurately to that.

Colors & Energy: I’ll get more into the energy aspect of this tomorrow when I talk about entrepreneurship, but the general energy and bright colors of the city really drove the pace of life. Everything was always moving and changing. Traffic is a great example- it is the most insane thing I’ve ever seen, yet there were no accidents. People make turns across lanes of incoming traffic- no signal, just plunging in and hoping other cars stop. And they all know to stop! It’s a delicate and dangerous dance, but exhilarating to be in!Streets and buildings are draped in colors of everyday life- laundry hanging off balconies, revamped American advertising pasted up and changed to reflect India.

Race: One of the more shocking moments was seeing a Benetton store and realizing that most of the models for India Benetton are white!  I’ll let anthropologists discuss the ramifications of color identity in a post-colonial society- for now I’ll just say that there are a lot of TV ads (for products like Oil of Olay) focused on “turning skin fairer.”  This attention to “fair” skin became very clear to the members of my group who were blond. While I myself was not subject to to the rapt attention of the masses, the “blonder” contingents of our procession were. The tall, blond male in our group was called “Brad Pitt” several times, and at the Gateway to India, people would come up to take pictures with him. Many people also tried to sneak in photos with the two girls in our group- they would stand next to them, then raise their camera phone and try to get a quick picture of them standing next to the girls. No one wanted a photo with me though. Our tour guide asked if I was an “americanized” Indian. I’m not. Nor am I Harman Baweja, no matter what one blind hotel concierge thought…..

Hospitality: While the hotel we stayed at was obviously very hospitable (nice job ITC Maratha– great buffet, gorgeous place, great service), everyone we encountered outside the hotel was welcoming as well.

While occasionally beggars and street vendors could really cling to you, and one of our party had to knock a few hands away from his wallet, for the most part we were made to feel very welcome. Everyone speaks a little English, and most people speak very good English, so you are able to get around. People ask where you’re from, and want to tell their experiences with other Americans (if any) and seem genuinely happy to see you visiting their country. I only felt unsafe once, in a somewhat “iffy” section of a large market section of town, and even then, I felt safer than I do sometimes in D.C. Everyone really wanted to engage in conversation they wanted to ask questions, they wanted to hear what we thought, they wanted to warn us not to eat the street food….everyone was extraordinarily welcoming.

Poverty: What was most striking about Mumbai- which kinda reminded us of L.A., given the crazy freeway and the spread-out nature of the city (and a few palm trees here and there)- was the close proximity of wealth and poverty. While I’m sure there are “nicer” sections of the city and “poorer” sections of the city, the two are integrated quite often. There’s an enormous amount of construction, and new buildings seem to spring up in the middle of desolation. Million-dollar rowhouses on the beach are next to shanty-towns slums; shopping centers have security guards checking everyone who enters….and I believe, stopping beggars from entering. The city is moving at such a pace that these two populations are thrown into contact again and again, until growth draws it’s breath once more and sends them hurtling apart till the next conflict zone.

It is the hardest thing in the world to look a child in the eyes and refuse to give money you know you can spare, but we were warned time and time again not to, as most of that money goes to “bosses” who run the beggars, and also leaves you vulnerable to another hundred beggars who suddenly appear as your money comes out. That reasoning doesn’t make it easier though…..

It was definitely a fantastic experience, and I don’t think I’ve really thought and worked through it all yet. So I apologize if these seem to be random and unconnected mumblings. I enjoyed my time in Mumbai- although I was ready to go home, I was also sad to leave. There is a passion and energy and drive there that I connected very strongly with- I’ll speak to that more in my next post, when I talk about the businesses in the slums we visited.

Secret Innovation that Saves Our Life

I’m often struck by how many important things are going on behind the scenes of our daily lives- and how little we know about those very important things. Quick test of this fact:

  • Google “iPad” – you get around 52MM hits.
  • Now google “Ug99 fungus” – you get less than 50K hits.

Which one of those two could lead to a billion deaths worldwide unless stopped soon? Despite what the Oranges (Apple-haters) think, it ain’t something Steve Jobs built.

Wired has an amazing article on the spread of the Ug99 fungus, a stem rust plague that could decimate worldwide wheat production- as it did in the past. Science beat it before (it was an important part of Norman Borlaug’s Nobel Prize winning, high-yield, disease-resistant wheat varieties) but it’s back, and we’re racing to beat it again. From Wired:

  • “This distinct new race of P. graminis, dubbed Ug99 after its country of origin (Uganda) and year of christening (1999), is storming east, working its way through Africa and the Middle East and threatening India and China. More than a billion lives are at stake. “It’s an absolute game-changer,” says Brian Steffenson, a cereal-disease expert at the University of Minnesota who travels to Njoro regularly to observe the enemy in the wild. “The pathogen takes out pretty much everything we have.”
  • “Indeed, 90 percent of the world’s wheat has little or no protection against the Ug99 race of P. graminis. If nothing is done to slow the pathogen, famines could soon become the norm — from the Red Sea to the Mongolian steppe — as Ug99 annihilates a crop that provides a third of our calories. China and India, the world’s biggest wheat consumers, will once again face the threat of mass starvation, especially among their rural poor. The situation will be particularly grim in Pakistan and Afghanistan, two nations that rely heavily on wheat for sustenance and are in no position to bear added woe. Their fragile governments may not be able to survive the onslaught of Ug99 and its attendant turmoil.”

How much do our lives depend on unforeseen innovation? A great deal I suppose…..