Opinion

Paul Smalera

Paradise regained: Clayton Christensen and the path to salvation

Jun 29, 2012 05:10 UTC

Is it possible in the year of our Lord 2012 that leadership still isn’t well understood? In 2012, despite business journalism’s fetishization of Steve Jobs, the most successful leader ever, whose apotheosis was Walter Isaacson’s doorstop, Steve Jobs, a biography of the half-Syrian, bearded man who built the world’s most valuable company, brick by brick, and found himself, like an earlier CEO of sorts, with legions of devoted apostles, some powerful enemies, and an inextinguishable legend? Is it possible, despite the endless streams of management self-help articles burbling out of Fast Company, Inc., Harvard Business Review, Businessweek, Fortune and the blogs of droves of self-appointed leadership gurus, we need more advice? And is it possible despite the emails – so many emails, Jesus wept – those emails that aggregate all this content using algorithms and intern labor, and slice it up so that the middle manager in Minnesota and the lawyer in Los Angeles and the new media marketer in New York are all .0058% more likely to click through to a relevant article? Is it possible, really possible, the answer to our prayers is another book on leadership?

It is, thinks Clay Christensen. Business folks – the unquenchable consumers of all that content – have been taking the paradoxes of leadership, because they are so familiar, for granted. When they do this, they ruin their companies and then they ruin their lives. Like that subway step everyone tripped over for years without noticing, they take for granted that the well-worn grooves on our society’s pathways are the right ones to be in. They don’t watch the road to see when a turn they are on is about to become rutted, or when they might hit mud and tip over. They feel, like the pioneers, safe in a wagon train, but then something goes wrong, and they are very alone, very fast. They need the wisdom of a pioneer who has crossed the valley, and studied the path.

    Paradox one: Leading is usually about getting people to go someplace difficult and new, even if (or precisely because) they’re perfectly comfortable and prosperous where they are right now. Paradox two: A leader can’t just motivate people to change, she has to persuade them to actually take the journey, and care about its success or failure. Paradox three: Even if a leader succeeds, there’s no guarantee she will get any credit, or gratitude for the services rendered. Except for the millions of dollars in compensation some business leaders make, the magazine cover stories and books written about them, the hobnobbing with President Obama, being a leader can be the most thankless of tasks. Of course, if you do it wrong, you get shown the door.

Still. Celebrity, money, power – hard to shed a tear, it’s true. But pay attention, for a moment, before we get to the personal, to the failures of business leadership. The landscape is littered with the carrion of companies that blew it; high fliers that flamed out. If leadership can be occasionally rewarding, it is far more often the case that business leaders, even ones who have been coronated by adoring customers and media, end up, over the long haul, stumbling and failing. To put it in more fruitful terms: For every Apple, there is a Blackberry.

Yet to Christensen, Harvard Business School professor, consultant, investor, onetime failed CEO, the problems of leadership are not inscrutable. They are very scrutable. They just have to be worked through a sound theory. Christensen, 60, is most famously the author of business school bible The Innovator’s Dilemma, a 1997 tract that grew out of his HBS doctoral thesis, about the disk drive industry. His work has appeared in or been the subject of scores of articles in all the above-named publications, but there is something different about it. It’s a something that grants him the ear and attention of some of the world’s most powerful CEOs. Christensen excels at delivering to them a very special kind of bad news, which would be unwelcome but for his steady, deep tone, gentle nature, and unshakeable conviction that his findings offer a path to corporate salvation, no matter how fraught it is with trials and temptation. Christensen tells his chosen people that if they want to survive they must lead, and they have to have faith in the theory that shows the way. He tells them that the moment of greatest danger comes when they stand at the pinnacle of their industry. Upstarts are coming for their customers. Soon, they’ll be broke. His theories are familiar to business journalism junkies, startup founders, and those powerful CEOs. Venture capitalists and startup founders in Silicon Valley and beyond have found religion in the concept of disruptive innovation that he refined.

Using spare black and white charts, which are his favorite visualization tools, Christensen shows how well-managed, profitable companies can become abject failures in a breathtakingly short time by doing all the right things: They refine their existing products to be better and better. They cater to their best, biggest customers. And they try to grow their profit margins with every passing quarter. But it turns out the path they’re on is something like C.S. Lewis’s gently sloping road to Hell. Christensen sees Bethlehem Steel go bankrupt just a couple years after a glowing Wall Street Journal profile about its genius CEO. He sees the second largest computer company in the world, DEC in the 1970’s, reduced to irrelevance in less than a decade. He observes the tragi-comic rise and fall of Enron. And he studies those disk drive companies, which he calls the “fruit flies” of the technology industry, as they are born, evolve, succeed, and die by the dozen, in no time at all. What the loser companies and many others all missed was, he believes, the impact of disruptive technologies on their business.

Brad Feld’s four ingredients for thriving startup cities

Jun 26, 2012 17:18 UTC

BOULDER, Colo. — One of the most resonant talks I heard at last week’s Big Boulder conference was also one of the shortest. In about twenty minutes, Brad Feld, who is without exaggeration the godfather to the Boulder startup community, explained exactly why it is that Boulder feels like a town on the verge, and why it’s teeming with startups. A lot of it has to do with Feld himself.

It’s not just that Feld is a co-founder of Techstars, the nationwide startup incubator that got its start in Boulder, or that the college kids — and lately, mid to late twenties startup veterans — flock to Boulder in hopes of getting a few minutes of his time to discuss their ideas. It’s not just that Feld’s Foundry Group scored big with an exit on Zynga, though that credibility certainly helps. And it’s not just that he picked Boulder as some magical perfect place to be a startup Mecca. In fact when I asked him why he moved there from Boston, he said, laughingly, it was because, “my wife told me she was moving to Boulder.” He figured he had better go along.

“Happy warrior” is usually a phrase reserved for politicians on futile crusades, but the four principles that Feld talked about that make Boulder a burgeoning startup locale are ones that he seems to embody, not just talk about. And as to my earlier post, wondering where and whether Boulder needed a billion dollar startup (or founder) to justify itself, Feld more or less shrugged it off. If that outcome is a natural result of the principles Feld sees as key to keeping Boulder a great place to found a company, then great. If it’s not, I get the sense no one, he least of all, would mind very much.

The platform problem in social media

Jun 22, 2012 14:27 UTC

The two speakers from Twitter — Ryan Sarver and Doug Williams — had just left the stage at Big Boulder, a data conference I’m attending in Colorado, when Twitter, the service, went down Thursday. Neither of them have anything to do with keeping the service up and running, but the restless audience probably still would’ve thrown the hotel-provided notepads and candies at them if they could’ve. Such was the level of dissatisfaction about the Twitter platform’s outage yesterday — and let’s face it, any day a service we rely on goes out, even when the crowd in question doesn’t consist of users and consumers of social big data, and the odd journalist.

The outage may have been poorly timed for Sarver and Williams, but the incident speaks to a larger problem the companies represented in this room are facing: building on top of social platforms.

Consider Zynga. The high flying gaming company, built primarily on top of Facebook’s Open Graph, has faced record lows in its stock as investors have lost some confidence in the company’s ability to continue growing. Or consider just about any other company, social or not, that is trying to reach its fans and customers in the social media world.

Startups are big in Boulder, but where are the tech billionaires?

Jun 20, 2012 17:37 UTC

“I’m not interested in working on this unless it’s going to be a multi-billion dollar idea. If I thought this would be a hundred million dollar company — what’s the point?” – Anonymous entreprerneur discussing his startup. Overheard in front of Ozo Coffee, Boulder, CO.

I’m in Boulder, Colorado for a few days this week to attend Big Boulder, a conference devoted to the social side of “big data.” Gnip, the company hosting the conference, is one I’ve written about before. They’re doing the plumber’s work of connecting all the firehoses of raw, public user data from social media companies like Twitter and Tumblr up to clients that want to derive insights from the wisdom of these online crowds.

A quick note on the definition of “big data.” Generally speaking, it’s the sort of data set that’s so huge, even running a simple report on it won’t tell you anything interesting. For example, if you could ask the IRS for a list of all the 25-30 year olds in the U.S. that paid taxes last year, you’d get back a list, alright. But what would be useful about it? On the other hand, if you could filter that list by several other factors: did they pay capital gains, did they owe over six figures in taxes, what is their self-reported job title, and so on, you might end up with a list highly correlated to young, dot-com millionaires and billionaires, like Mark Zuckerberg. And you might cross reference that list against all the other data sets you can find on them: where they live, where they shop, where they travel, what they watch, eat and listen to. It’s all out there.

from MediaFile:

Facebook’s private experiment with democracy

Jun 7, 2012 15:45 UTC

Facebook is having a vote on changes to its privacy policy. Not that you'd know it.

Voter turnout has always been a problem for developed nations, but what about developed social networks? Facebook, with its 900 million users, is often written about as if it were the personal prelature of its founder, Mark Zuckerberg. But Facebook itself prefers the term “ecosystem” – with good reason. Facebook’s engineers provide the basic conditions for life – the agar at the bottom of the social-media Petri dish. In turn, it's developers and users who really craft their own worlds, their own experiences of Facebook – not Facebook itself. And whatever world they craft, it can only exist in the laws that govern the Facebook universe. Who ultimately decides those laws? Facebook.

Given that reality, it’s amazing that most users don’t care a lick about the vote happening on the site, right now, today, over proposed changes to Facebook’s privacy policies. Nor did they care much about the last vote over the site’s Terms of Service, which happened in 2009. Of course, it’s hard to care about something you don’t know is happening. Even though the vote is making the news here and there, there’s no inkling of any promotion on Facebook itself about what sounds like a rather important site event.

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