The DARPA Challenge: Motivating a Network to Act

December 3, 2009

DARPA, the government agency, is sponsoring a challenge on Saturday to test the ability of social networks to mobilize and complete a common task. The group is placing ten giant red weather balloons around the country (tied down near the ground in random locations) on Saturday. They are offering $40,000 to the individual or team that can correctly submit the locations of all ten balloons. The balloons will only be visible during daylight hours on Saturday and they will be visible from publicly accessible locations, such as roads.

Some of my students have formed a team to participate in this contest.  If they win, they will donate the proceeds to charity.  The  team is looking for help in tracking down the balloons on Saturday.  If you see a balloon and are interested in being helpful to them, you can find all of the details on their website.


Anna Deavere Smith on the Beer Summit

August 1, 2009

Anna Deavere Smith

Anna Deavere Smith is best known for playing diverse characters in powerful, thoroughly researched, one-woman shows about events that shake us at the foundation such as the L.A. riots.  Smith is among the great observers of our time.  She holds a mirror up at an angle that always illuminates and sometimes burns.

I saw her perform last fall in Let Me Down Easy, a show that explores the presence and absence of grace.  The characters she channeled ranged from Rwandan genocide survivors to a horse trainer in Kentucky.  Some part of me was scared to be less than 20 feet away from her.  I wasn’t sure I could handle the truths she was about to reveal.  She let me down easy.  When I saw her the next day at a gym around Cambridge, it took all of my self-control not to interrupt her stretching and thank her for being gentle.

Smith weighed in on the Beer Summit this week in a blog entry on The Huffington Post.  She spends a lot of the post working through her own conflicted relationship with the police, and then lands with a strong challenge to the prescriptions being offered for making good use of this “teachable moment.”  She suggests that most of what we’re hearing is too soft, too 1998, a year that no one has examined like Smith.  We now need to pivot, she argues, from teaching and learning to action:

What concerns me about the “heated debate” is that as radio hosts and guests talk, I hear the same kind of language that I heard — and studied — in the ’90s. Talk of “safe places to have conversations,” for example. That’s not what we need right now. This is not about conversations and “learning about one another.” We don’t need salons. We need initiatives and resources to spark the work of building a stronger society, one with public spaces that allow for shared excellence.


The Naked Leader

July 21, 2009

Red Smith famously said, “writing is easy…you just sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.”  No one believed him like Frank McCourt.  We lost McCourt over the weekend, but not before he gave everything he had to his readers and students.

McCourt didn’t stop the bleeding when he got up from the typewriter, one reason he was so good in the classroom.  He was exposed, completely.  His example suggests an intersection of great writing, teaching and leadership.  The more layers he removed, the more effective he became at making other people better.

One of the more powerful anecdotes in McCourt’s ‘Tis is about his transformation from an authoritarian, sadistic ruler of his students at Stuyvesant High School, among the most elite in the country, to someone with the devotion and empathy to excite young minds. We find him hiding behind a ridiculous front of dominance and power – and then, in an instant, he removes it.  And his life starts over.

Every day I teach with my guts in a knot, lurking behind my desk at the front of the room playing the teacher game with the chalk, the test, the eraser, the red pen, the teacher guides, the power of the quiz, the test, the exam, I’ll call your father, I’ll call your mother, I’ll report you to the governor, I’ll damage your average so badly, kid, you’ll be lucky to get into a community college in Mississippi, weapons of menace and control.

One day a rebellion starts to brew.  One student has had enough.  The class starts circling around McCourt’s dirty, little secret, which is that the tyrant at the front of the room never went to high school.

So, Mr. McCourt, I thought you had to get a license to teach in the city.

You do.

Don’t you have to get a college degree.

You do.

Don’t you have to graduate from high school to get into college?

You mean graduate from high school, from high school, from from from.

I suppose you do.

Tyro lawyer grills teacher, carries the day, and word spreads to my other classes. Wow, Mr. McCourt, you never went to high school and you’re teaching at Stuyvesant? Cool, man.

And into the trash basket I drop my teaching guides, my quizzes, tests, examinations, my teacher-knows-all mask.

I’m naked and starting over and I hardly know where to begin.

As the book unfolds, it becomes clear that this decision leads to McCourt’s extraordinary impact.  This was his pivot from safety to influence.  Most leaders confront a similar choice at some point in their lives, usually the choice between impersonating a leader and actually leading.  By documenting what can happen when the mask drops, McCourt made it harder for the rest of us to hide.


Owning It

July 9, 2009

In a recent interview with the New York Times, Wendy Kopp, co-founder of Teach for America, gave an insightful answer to the question: What are you looking for in teachers you recruit? (Emphasis added below):

We’ve done a lot of research on the characteristics of our teachers who are the most successful. The most predictive trait is still past demonstrated achievement, and all selection research basically points to that. But then there is a set of personal characteristics. And the No. 1 most predictive trait is perseverance, or what we would call internal locus of control. People who in the context of a challenge — you can’t see it unless you’re in the context of a challenge — have the instinct to figure out what they can control, and to own it, rather than to blame everyone else in the system.

In this case, there are so many people who could be blamed — kids, kids’ families, the system. And yet you’ll go into schools and you’ll see people teaching in the same hallway, and some have that mentality of, “It’s not possible to succeed here,” and others who are just prevailing against it all. And it’s so much about that mind-set and the instinct to remain optimistic in the face of a challenge.

Kopp’s insight applies to sourcing good leaders, as well.  A pattern of success is not predictive enough, since it reveals nothing about the difficulty of a person’s path.  Paraphrasing Governor Ann Richards, being born on third base and hitting a triple are very different things, although it may be hard to tell the difference from the outside.  If you really want to know how someone will perform with a leadership mandate, look for a pattern of perseverance. Ask them to describe moments when life struck them out, and listen closely to their explanation.  Their willingness to be accountable for a bad outcome, to resist blaming other people or circumstances — what Kopp calls “owning it” — may be the most important indicator of future impact.


The MBA Oath

June 1, 2009

Nitin Nohria and Rakesh Khurana published an excellent article in the Harvard Business Review earlier this year about making management a true profession.  In one illustration of the disconnect between management and other professions, the article points out that while med school graduates take a Hippocratic oath to do no harm and law school grads swear to uphold the constitution, business school grads have no equivalent.

This may be changing.  As the NYT reported, a group of HBS students has responded to the economic moment by creating an MBA Oath. The pledge is built on the idea that a manager’s purpose is to “serve the greater good by bringing people and resources together to create value that no single individual can create alone.”  The oath’s definition of greater good is broad, touching on everything from global prosperity to leadership development, but at its core is a powerful challenge to the conventional wisdom that a manager’s only true responsibility is to maximize shareholder value and stay within the letter of the law.  Students and grads can go to mbaoath.org to sign the oath.


Tom Brokaw, Heretic or Hero?

April 21, 2009

brokaw1

Have we moved beyond these cumbersome divisions we call states? In a recent Op-Ed Tom Brokaw proposed that local governments blur their administrative lines and work together to deliver services more efficiently. In discussing North and South Dakota’s 17 colleges and universities, he made the following blasphemous comment:

I know this is heresy, but couldn’t the two states get a bigger bang for their higher education buck if they consolidated their smaller institutions into, say, the Dakota Territory College System, with satellite campuses but a common administration and shared standards?

Jefferson and Madison may be turning in their graves, but Brokaw makes a legitimate case for consolidating costly and overlapping public services. The economics are clearly in favor of pursuing such a system, but politics often get in the way of this kind of progress. As Brokaw points out, parochial interests will be the biggest hurdle to making these changes a reality.

The same dynamics play out in companies. Even when there are known advantages to centralizing activities — even when it makes things cheaper and better — the self-interest of individuals and business units can undermine a centralization campaign. Firms that overcome this tension usually do a few things right. First, they put someone in charge of “shared services” who has the leadership skills to bring a skeptical organization along. Second, they focus on the better as much as the cheaper, on the upside of leveraging learning and best practices across the entire organization.

It’s not only that the Dakotas’ 17 colleges and universities can buy chalk for less when they combine some activities, but also that the Dakota Territory College System can use the knowledge now embedded in each institution to improve the education being offered by all of them. And designed correctly, realizing these “economies of experience” doesn’t have to come at the price of innovation or agility or even customization. Indeed, done correctly, these changes can free up the time and resources for an organization to deliver unprecedented quality to its constituents.


Chief Culture Officer

March 20, 2009

In an interview for a recent Business Week article, Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh described the source of the company’s exceptional performance and increasingly legendary customer service:

Ask Hsieh to describe his secret sauce, and he’ll tell you that much of Zappos’ success comes down to the company’s culture and the unusual amount of openness he encourages among employees, vendors, and other businesses…

If we get the culture right, most of the other stuff, like the brand and the customer service, will just happen. With most companies, as they grow the culture goes downhill. We want the culture to grow stronger and stronger as we grow.

Hsieh understands that another name for CEO is Chief Culture Officer. When culture is built and protected deliberately by the CEO — as it is by Hsieh, who embodies the values he wants Zappos to compete on, including transparency and excellence — culture sets the stage for a company to thrive.  As Steve Kaufman, a dear friend and colleague who used to run Arrow Electronics, likes to say, “culture eats strategy for lunch.”

Culture drives the millions of invisible choices that aren’t covered in the strategic plan or employee handbook and would be silly if they were, norms and attitudes like unfailing respect for customers and  pride that’s linked to group performance. Culture manifests visibly too, of course, often by leaders who do whatever it takes to defend it. In Zappo’s case, this means that all new hires who complete the introductory training are offered $2,000 to walk away.  People who are the strongest fit with Zappo’s culture don’t take the money.

But culture is the strong, sensitive type. For all its power, it reacts strongly to neglect. When culture is not a high priority for CEOs — which is often the case — culture can lose its swagger, show up unevenly across business units, and quickly stop being a source of competitive advantage. In today’s economic climate where customer retention and customer value are increasingly vital, excellent service will be a differentiator.  Tony Hsieh is a powerful reminder of the role that culture and its stewards will play in that journey.