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Playing Into the Wind:Even when the environment dictates, change is hard 

Yesterday, I watched my high school alma mater compete in the NJ Group III State soccer championship. The game was an evenly matched, well-fought contest that resulted in a 0-0 tie and the crowning of State Co-Champions.

What was more remarkable than the game, however, was the environment in which it was played. It was cold. Really cold. And windy. Really windy. A strong, persistent wind blew all game directly downfield into one of the goals.

Goal kicks into the wind went about 35 yards in the air and then came straight down as if they had hit a wall. It made it nearly impossible to play any balls in the air for the team playing into the wind. Yet, that’s exactly what each of these teams kept trying to do. Goal kicks, punts, offensive lobs all were launched into the teeth of this stiff wind, each with the same result — the ball would go nowhere and possession was lost. It was frustrating to watch.

Watching the game, it seemed obvious what they needed to do. You just wanted the kids on the field to take stock of their environment, decide they shouldn’t fight it, and change their approach to start playing the ball on the ground. Knit together some one-two passes, a through-ball here and there. But they didn’t. Each of the players knew how challenging the wind was but as a team they couldn’t collectively adapt to the environment. Recognizing the need to do something different isn’t the hard part. Translating that need into action is.

Companies, particularly large established players, are increasingly finding themselves playing into the wind. Startups and new technologies are disrupting more and more industries at a faster and faster pace. And all too often, big companies fail to adapt their approaches to the new environments they find themselves in.

They know they have to change. They hold all manner of ‘open innovation’ workshops and several are beginning to tout ‘lean startup’ principles. These are all good things. Recognizing the need to change is the first step to actually changing. But they still find it hard to adapt, to alter their behavior and to change tack in meaningful ways. It’s frustrating to watch.

So why do companies and high-school soccer players continue to kick into the wind? Generally, I think it comes down to two traits:

  • Muscle memory — a trait operating at the individual level where, in the heat of competition, people default to practiced and trusted behaviors. Defenders in soccer, who have always cleared the ball with big booming kicks upfield, revert back to that known behavior when the pressure is on. Individual contributors in large companies know they can be successful and get good performance reviews by doing what’s worked in the past. So that’s exactly what they end up doing. Despite the growing “embrace failure” messaging in corporate America, it’s going to take time for employees to actually deviate from their entrenched behaviors.
  • Organizational readiness — a trait operating at the team level where even if an individual knows that kicking into the wind doesn’t make sense, his teammates haven’t positioned themselves to receive balls on the ground. This is all too common in large companies where individuals, or small forward-looking teams, know they need to do things differently, but can’t get the larger organizational resources or cover to do them. They find it hard to successfully spread innovation practices to the larger company because it requires other folks to adjust their behavior. The organization at the system level just isn’t ready to adapt its style of play.

Fueled by increases in both technological capability and capital availability, the winds of change are certainly blowing. The world is becoming far more asymmetric and easily disrupted. Established companies face all sorts of new threats from smaller non-traditional players. And their established practices just aren’t as successful in this new environment. Recognizing change is one thing, adapting to it is another. Those teams that can read the wind and actually adapt their style of play stand a far better chance of weathering the storm than if they continue to simply kick into the wind

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Mathematics is a way to break the barriers of the conventional, an expression of unbounded imagination in the search for truth. Georg Cantor, creator of the theory of infinity, wrote: “The essence of mathematics lies in its freedom.” Mathematics teaches us to rigorously analyze reality, study the facts, follow them wherever they lead. It liberates us from dogmas and prejudice, nurtures the capacity for innovation.

Love and Math, The Heart of Hidden Reality by Edward Frenkel

Quiet moves win

In startups, as in chess, the unexciting moves often make the difference 

Magnus Carlsen and Vishy Anand have been battling it out in Chennai the last week for the 2013 FIDE World Chess Championship. After 4 straight draws, Carlsen’s opened it up with two straight decisive wins.

If you follow the games, particularly yesterday’s Game 6 (and you canhere and here), you can’t attribute Carlsen’s wins to any individual move or set of moves. At least I can’t, but I’m no grandmaster, so who knows. But it sure seems like there haven’t been any bold exchanges, daring sacrifices or cunning gambits that have carried the day for him. He’s played sound, methodical chess, building solid positions that slowly press his opponent. He’s won the last two games largely on the back of quiet moves.

Quiet moves are those that neither capture nor threaten a piece. In a sense, they’re boring. They don’t attract a lot of attention and they don’t demand a direct response. But they’re critical as they create strong positional value by deploying pieces to important squares where they can best exert influence over the course of the game.

Startups often think they need loud moves to succeed. They feel they need to make a splash, generate buzz, command attention, crush a demo day presentation, make a noise in the market, etc. That stuff does help in some cases, but it hurts in others, particularly when those companies aren’t in a position to capitalize on the attention. This is why Ken Lerer feels that most startups should just “shut up.”… I bet that in most cases it’s the quiet moves that really led to success.

Quiet startup moves are that can’t be written about in breathless headlines, blog posts or press releases. Things like building and reinforcing an internal culture that enables you to hire and retain a high-performing team. Deep and critical thinking about customer pain. Generating insightful hypotheses then creating relevant market experiments and meaningful KPIs to test those hypotheses. Success is built on these important and quiet foundations.

Like how Carlsen’s quiet moves build successful chess positions, these quiet startup moves help founders build successful companies best positioned to capture market opportunities. Ultimately, startups need to deliver products that delight users, and it’s often the quiet moves that best help them to do this.

Curiosity over Horsepower

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I heard a professor once say of all the young, highly-credentialed students that cycled through the top MBA program where he taught that they have “tremendous CPUs but such little RAM.”

While the analogy doesn’t exactly hold, what he meant is that these folks could process huge amounts of information in short order but didn’t have any experience to put it into context. Basically, they were super smart but knew nothing.  At least nothing as to how actual businesses were run, how ideas were conceived and turned into viable products, hows deals get done — basically how the real business world works. So much intellectual horsepower, he called it, but so little wisdom.

Related to intellectual horsepower is its sometimes misunderstood cousin, intellectual curiosity. Most folks equate curiosity with having broad interests or eclectic pursuits, as though the defining aspect of curiosity lies in diversity. Others view curiosity as always asking what-if questions and exploring the boundaries of what is possible. Both those are true to an extent, but for me it’s something deeper. 

At the core, I believe intellectual curiosity is a heady mix of tenacity and lateral thinking. It’s the indomitable drive to understand why things are the way they are and not accepting them at face value. Mixed with this is the inclination to combine existing systems of thought in novel and unexpected ways to probe what’s possible, learn new things and create new ideas.

First principles type thinking (like that attributed to Elon Musk) tends to be a trait of the intellectually curious. Once you have reduced something to its most elemental conceptual building blocks, it’s so much easier then to discover new angles for attacking seemingly intractable problems or to find application in new domains. First principles thinking is a powerful intellectual design pattern and a hallmark of the curious.

Those with high horsepower, like the ones our professor was referring to, will ace their exams, get good grades and easily deliver on assignments — basically excel at whatever you ask them to do. Where the high horsepower crowd excels at answering questions, the intellectually curious excel at asking penetrating and important questions. Questions that, if answered, open up all sorts of new possibilities. Folks with high horsepower tend to exceed expectations. But the intellectually curious can truly surprise you.

The world needs more curious people. Being classically “smart” is no longer enough to meet the innovation challenges most companies now face. Horsepower alone isn’t going to identify that next category defining product. Superior analysis skills shine a light a bit further down the track, but they don’t disrupt existing markets or create new ones unless they are combined with the tenacity and lateral thinking of intellectual curiosity. 

Now’s a great time for the truly curious. Never have so many powerful tools and so much information been so readily available. The curious have never been more empowered than they are today. Given a minimum threshold of capability, I will always value curiosity over horsepower. These are the folks I want to work with and invest in.