Drucker on the theory of the business

The theory of the business must be known and understood throughout the organisation. This is easy in the organization’s early days. But as it becomes successful, an organization tends increasingly to take its theory for granted, becoming less and less conscious of it. Then the organization becomes sloppy. It begins to cut corners. It begins to pursue what is expedient rather than what is right. It stops thinking. It stops questioning. It remembers the answers but has forgotten the questions. The theory of the business becomes “culture.” But culture is no substitute for discipline, and the theory of the business is a discipline.

The theory of the business has to be tested constantly. It is not graven on tablets of stone. It is a hypothesis, And it is a hypothesis about things that are in constant flux – society, markets, customers, technology. And so, built into the theory of the business must be the ability to change itself. Some theories are so powerful that they last for a long time. Eventually every theory becomes obsolete and then invalid. It happened to the GMs and the AT&Ts. It happened to IBM…*

Peter Drucker – Managing in a Time of Great Change (From The Daily Drucker)

*It happened to Compuserve, MySpace, Yahoo, Nokia…

Where do you want to go?

And do you trust that the people you’re following can get you there?

Have they been there before?

Has anyone been there before?

For interesting work, there probably isn’t a map of the route, so you’ll looking for:

  • People who have been to similar places
  • People who have been part of the way
  • A cohort of fellow travellers
  • Compasses, not maps

Seeds (2): bikes, planes and automobiles

Many of the seeds of the automobile industry came from bicycle manufacturers (I touched on this in Use, Copy, Repair, Make), and on a visit to the National Motor Museum in Beaulieu I learnt some more of the story.

Karl Benz, widely credited as the maker of the first practical automobile, started in mechanical engineering and ironwork and started experimenting with petrol engines to power industrial machines. In 1883 he joined forces with Max Rose and Friedrich Wilhelm Eßlinger who owned – you guessed it – a bicycle repair shop. Benz & Companie Rheinische Gasmotoren-Fabrik made petrol engines for industry, which allowed Benz to develop his expertise and finish his first Patent Motorwagen in 1885.

Other companies that grew out of bicycle manufacturers include Rover, Peugeot, Opel, Skoda, Humber and Hilman, Sunbeam, and Calcott.

There’s a parallel trend with weapons manufactures: Royal Enfield and B.S.A. (British Small Arms) turned their expertise in machining from guns to motorbikes and cars.

And it doesn’t stop at cars: the Wright Brothers were bicycle mechanics turned manufacturers who turned their hand to aviation instead.

We needed bike companies to innovate and start making cars, becoming cross-breed or hybrid companies before second generation ‘pure’ car companies picked up the torch and made further innovations as specialists.

So what, Sharky?

Right now, somewhere, in something that already exists, the seed of the Next Big Thing is taking root and getting ready to grow.

  • If you have an idea of what the future looks like, what might the seeds look like? Can you shape your project with the Next Big Thing in mind?
  • Looking at things from the other way round, what might your organisation be the seed of? What’s The Future for your field?
  • Is there a hybrid step (engines and bicycles, bicycle engineering and wings) that you could take to open up possibilities for your organisation?

On inequality

Inequality is inevitable (because we’re all different), and it isn’t necessarily wrong (if we value the freedom to make meaningful choices) and doesn’t necessarily have to be corrected (because we value diversity).

Once we’re clear on this, we’re forced to be specific. We can ask which kinds of inequality we’re not prepared to tolerate, making sure that we’re clear about where they come from and why they’re damaging (“because I believe in equality” isn’t an answer) and start talking about what we can do to make things better.

Then we can be the ones to go first and start to do those things.

Typo (4): (no) Standard English

[The task of documenting all the words in the English lanuguage] no longer seems finite. Lexicographers are accepting the languages boundlessness. They know by heart Murray’s famous remark: “The circle of the English language had a well defined centre but no discernable circumference.” In the centre are the words everyone knows. At the edges, where Murray placed slang and cant and scientific jargon and foreign border crossers, everyone’s sense of the language differed and no one’s can be called “standard.”

James Gleick – The Information

Typo (2): error rate

The other thing about typos is how few we actually make relative to the attention we pay to them.

A single spelling or grammar mistake in a thousand words leaps off the page – is embarrassing – but makes no difference to our understanding.

We pay errors far more attention than they deserve as signals of the quality of a piece of writing – and in most contexts a 0.1% error rate is considered excellent anyway.

Polish is important – but not as a substitute for workmanship.

The Onion (3): exemplar interesting problem – learning to read

Problems gain (or lose) interestingness as their context and scale changes.

Take teaching a kids to read as an example. It’s almost inevitable that a child will learn to read given the following ingredients:

  • A supportive family
  • A strong reading culture at home
  • A steady supply of good books
  • A reasonable curriculum or methodology for teaching
  • An well educated, motivated teacher (who could be a parent) who cares about the child who shows up consistently
  • A safe, relatively comfortable, relatively calm environment
  • An absence of specific learning difficulties

These factors form a strong, mutually reinforcing (and robust and self-repairing) network/system that makes learning to read more a matter of process than a problem, per se. If one or two of these ingredients are weak or missing, strength in another area will probably make up the difference. The outcome (learning to read) might take a bit more time, but it will happen.

But the more ingredients that are missing from the system – the looser or weaker the network – the harder (and more interesting) the problem becomes. It’s no longer a case of due process, but of finding a path and doing something new.

To be continued…

Raising the average (2)

The basic principle is that when you’re recruiting, you should be seeking to raise the average of your team, bringing in people who increase the level of energy, skill, and possibilities available – and who raise the bar in terms of commitment to your aims and values.

This is a helpful rule of thumb, but there are two problems with it:

  1. The more successful you are at raising your average, the harder it’s going to be to keep doing it.
  2. As you get better at what you do and grow as a team, it’s also going to get harder to find people who raise the average in what are presumably key areas.

So it’s inevitable that you’re going to lower some averages, some of the time, if you want your team to grow. It’s doubly inevitable if you’re seeking to build an organisation that increases the average, both internally (as individuals learn and grow and as the team works better together) and in the workforce (as people move on and take what they’ve learned to make a contribution elsewhere).

I think the answer is to make sure that you’re clear about which averages are non-negotiable, and which of the others are most important at a given time:

  • Values and integrity
  • Enthusiasm / energy
  • Commitment to your vision
  • Maturity – consideration and care for others
  • Skill in a key area. This could be something you deliver, like training or a technical service you provide for your clients – or a support function like accounting or managing infrastructure.
  • Readiness (and ability) to learn and grow

It’s worth being clear first about the non-negotiables of values and attitude (that is, character) – and the energy that you need a new team-member to bring to the team.

You also need to know which missing skills you’re seeking to add to your team from the outset, and whether you expect these to arrive fully formed (how will you tell?) or are going to help your new teammate acquire them (you need a training plan, and you need to make sure that you carry it out).

Beyond that, a lot depends on the stage of development of your team, and whether your priorities are growth into new areas (finding people to create possibilities and help you do things that you can’t already do), increasing capacity (adding people to help you do more of what you already do) or consolidation (adding people who will help you do what you already do better). It’s worth bearing in mind though, that the two types of growth create a need for consolidation, and consolidation creates the potential for growth.

Seth Godin on transforming education

Seth Godin has written a lot about education – Stop Stealing Dreams (TED talk and longer e-book) is a good place to start.

Then it’s worth checking out what he’s actually doing:  the altMBA reverses the usual 90+ percent drop-out rates of most online courses, and the Akimbo workshops (including The Marketing Seminar, The Bootstrapper’s Workshop and The Freelancer’s Workshop) get rave reviews.

In this article on Medium Seth lays out some of the core principles of his approach.

Also check out the videos at the Akimbo Workshops link above – especially the one at the very bottom from Creative Mornings, where he sets out his thinking behind the model.

Interesting problems: a definition

A problem is interesting when…

1. It’s important to someone

Presumably because solving it will make things better.* The problem won’t be important to everyone, so by definition it won’t be interesting to everyone either.

The problem will be valuable in proportion to the number of people it is important to, and how intensely they feel its importance.

This means that problems exist in a network, and gain their importance and value from their position within the network – this is true of both their actual and perceived importance and value.

2. A solution isn’t immediately obvious or available

Sometimes (rarely) a problem is hard to solve because it’s actually new and unique – a world first. More often it’s because interesting problems are actually systems (or networks) of smaller problems, and are closely bound up with their local context, which means that there won’t be a simple, discrete solution: a ‘system’ of problems will require a ‘system’ of solutions.

It also means that what looks like an old problem in a new context (a new place, time, group of people, culture) is likely to respond differently to previously successful solutions. A new configuration of the problem ‘system’ will require a newly configured set of solutions – and the solutions that work best will change with time.

3. It doesn’t have a perfect solution

If you understand a problem as a system, you understand that predictability and perfection are impossible once you move beyond the most basic or theoretical level. Instead we need to understand the best solutions as those which most improve the disposition of the problem system, giving the best chance of a ‘good enough’ outcome.

4. We may not even be able to find a satisfactory solution

If you can’t fail, it’s not interesting.

5. The solutions to the problem are dynamic

If interesting problems are dynamic systems within changing contexts, ‘happily ever after’ isn’t possible from a single (fixed) solution: old solutions will become less effective (or less acceptable) as the context changes. Both the solution ‘system’ and the system that generates the solution need to be dynamic too.

What do you think? What problems does this perspective help with? Where does it fall down?

*Stopping things from getting worse is a way of making them better