Notes – What Is Jobs To Be Done (JTBD) Theory?

Several months ago, a friend of mine introduced me to “Jobs To Be Done Theory” (JTBD) via the free work of an entrepreneur named Alan Klement called When Coffee and Kale Compete. The JTBD framework is part of a growing base of entrepreneurial knowledge in the innovation space with key similarities to things like disruptive innovation (The Innovator’s Dilemma by Christensen) and Design Thinking practice. These approaches to entrepreneurship focus on empathy as a methodology for understanding the psychological motivations and needs of a potential customer rather than on their demographic characteristics or profile data. Solutions are designed to help the customer make progress rather than being built around features or functions; in this way business people might be surprised to find out that “coffee” and “kale” can be competitors in helping a person make progress on “get my morning started right”, whereas in the traditional product design space an entrepreneur might be more focused on “how to build a better cup of coffee for 18-35 year old women.”

As Klement says in the introduction,

I want to help my customers evolve themselves. I shouldn’t study what customers want in a product. I need to study why customers want.

He describes a JTBD as consisting of three elements:

  1. job is your struggle to make a change for the better
  2. The to be part denotes that overcoming that struggle is an evolutionary process; it happens over time
  3. The change is done when you overcome that struggle and have changed for the better; there are things you can do now, that you couldn’t do before

These jobs originate inside people, not inside things. They have to do with motivations or states of mind, that is, they are psychic not material in nature. And there are many potential strategies for helping a person to accomplish that transition from one state to another, which is why it is possible to envision disruptive solutions that redefine the categories by which product or service competition occur.

Klement helpfully summarizes some principles of JTBD theory:

  • Customers don’t want your product or what it does; they want help making their lives better
  • People have Jobs; things don’t
  • Competition is defined in the minds of customers, and they use progress as their criteria
  • When customers start using a solution for a JTBD, they stop using something else
  • Innovation opportunities exist when customers exhibit compensatory behaviors
  • Solutions come and go, while Jobs stay largely the same
  • Favor progress over outcomes or goals
  • Progress defines value; contrast reveals value
  • Solutions for Jobs deliver value beyond the moment of use
  • Producers, consumers, solutions and Jobs, should be thought of as parts of a system that work together to evolve markets

He works through a number of case studies to illustrate these principles. The methodology in each case study focuses on interviewing customers to get verbatims about how they reason about what problem they’re trying to solve and what solutions they’ve tried in the past and present. The emphasis is on revealed preference, determined by actions, rather than stated preference, determined by marketing surveys or hypothetical scenarios. By unpacking these statements rather than making assumptions, the entrepreneur can work to understand the mindset of the customer and how he sees himself struggling to make progress in a particular part of his life.

Klement later discusses two well-known case studies in the disruptive innovation literature, Kodak and Apple (iPhone vs. iPod), and reinterprets the story through the JTBD framework. With this, we see that Kodak’s business was annihilated not because they were complacent and didn’t see how technology would make their product irrelevant, but because their focus was on optimizing a particular solution (traditional film) for a particular JTBD rather than focusing on that JTBD itself and trying to ask what is the best way to help customers make progress on that in light of changing technology. In contrast, Apple took a very profitable product, the iPod, and thought about what kind of job it was fulfilling and what was a better way to do that job, the iPhone, rather than thinking about how to build a better iPod. This is because “no solution for a JTBD is permanent.”

One thing I found challenging in trying to digest this new framework was identifying the JTBD itself. Klement offers a few guidelines for deciding if you do NOT have a JTBD defined properly:

  • Does it describe an action?
  • Can you visualize somebody doing this?
  • Does it describe “how” or “what” and not why?

If the answer is yes, it is likely not a JTBD because JTBDs are emotional and represent psychic states. They are ways people experience their own existence and how they progress from one state of existence to another, they are not the thing that makes the progress themselves. Sometimes these JTBDs are exceedingly obvious. But a lot of the time, they’re subtle and can only be defined with confidence after a long, empathy-driven process of interviewing and conversing with customers to better understand what they think they’re trying to do. This is hard work! The JTBD framework is certainly not a quick or easy fix to the dilemma of how someone with an entrepreneurial bent can design great new products and services that meet peoples needs.

The book is chock full of case studies and deeper explanations of the basic components summarized above. I highlighted and underlined various meaningful passages that I won’t bother typing into these notes because they’d be too out of context to add clear meaning to a reader; besides, I read this book earlier this year and didn’t get to write up my notes until now, so I can’t even remember with some of them why I found them impactful at the time.

Alan Klement offers free consultation services and aspires to help people on a paid basis as well. I have spoken to him a number of times as I have read his book and attended the Design Thinking Bootcamp to share thoughts and ideas about the JTBD framework, especially as it applies to personal design challenges I am exploring in my own business. He informed me that he is working on a revised and re-organized 2nd edition which he plans to release soon. I will likely revisit the book then and consider publishing further notes and thoughts about the JTBD framework as I become more familiar with it and even work to use it in my own design challenges in the future.

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Review – Shoe Dog

[amazon text=Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike&asin=1501135910]

by Phil Knight, published 2016

What can we learn from business books, especially business biographies?

I used to laugh about this with a friend a considerable amount– all these dopey books about businesses, business men and business secrets, written by ghost writers and know-nothing journalists (hack writers), developed for and marketed to mass audiences who want an entertaining dream and not an edifying edifice to stare at imponderably.

We would be amazed at how absent these books were of any meaningful details, in fact, precisely the meaningful details necessary to actually understand what was going on and “how’deedodat?” It was like some kind of conspiracy of incompetent stupidity, to write books about business without margins, without tax rates, without rates of return on capital, without the capital structure outlined and revisited periodically as an enterprise grew, without definitions of risk and explanations of strategy.

Instead, lists of names, dates, places. Stylized depictions of tragedy and success. Cliched, retrospective business wisdom, as if the hustler-entrepreneur thought in any terms other than pure, maddening survival or unbridled, sociopathic dominance of everyone around him. Overlooking special revenue or R&D relationships with governments that were critical to a firm’s mastery of its market or early survival, or ignoring impolitic questions of how the founder avoided getting swept up in the local social conflagration du jour and being drafted out of existence.

To this mish-mash of storytelling sins this book adds a new one, anachronistic language. Somehow, Nike/Blue Ribbon was a “startup” before startups in the 1960s (and even into the 1970s, when it had been around for almost a decade… just getting going, really!) and one of the guiding philosophies of Knight and his “Buttface” crew (more on this in a bit) was to “fail fast”, nearly five decades before the software development revolution convinced the business world that iterative testing and quick trial to failure was the right way for all businesses to grow and not just a specialized niche that could essentially emulate A/B variants of its product or service offering at no cost or risk with the simple push of a button. But yeah, the shoe makers were doing that back when Vietnam was a thing.

That is why I read “Shoe Dog” with skepticism and found myself lusting after a critical beatdown as I turned the pages. A 25 year-old Phil Knight travels to Japan and secures a distributorship for a top Japanese athletic shoe, quite by chance and without any explanation of how he surmounted the language barrier in post-war Japan, then proceeds to tour the globe for four months by himself as some kind of backpacker-type tourist while his order samples, presumably, sit and wait for him the whole time? This is the beginnings of what would become Nike. And it went just like that.

Yeah, right.

The book is full of these glaring contradictions. Knight wanted to avoid the standard, stultifying corporate life, so he built a massive corporation. He believed in playing it straight as he advised his Eagle Scout nominees, so he lied to his financiers and production partners to grow his business. He never had enough cash to keep the bank happy and grow the business organically, so he bought himself a nice home and took the team on bi-annual corporate retreats to luxurious places (the book suddenly introduces this information about 12 years into the company’s history, where it is also revealed that they endearingly refer to one another as “buttfaces”, somehow demonstrating their open and transparent corporate culture). His co-founder fools him into giving majority control of the enterprise at the time of founding, then gives him 2/3rds of his share when trying to retire without fuss or challenge.

What “Shoe Dog” taught me, then, is that I’ve been naive to think there is anything esoteric one can learn from business books like this. It is my mistake for coming to a mass market piece of media and expecting to hear an honest telling, or even an interesting one. These books are written to entertain, glorify the egos of those who they are written about or nominally by, and perhaps even to some extent to distract, delude or otherwise throw off of the scent the would-be competitors who read them.

Reading between the lines, Knight was an alcoholic. He was clearly unscrupulous and at times cruel in his dealings with others. He did not spend the time with his family that they wanted from him. He lied, consciously, to his business partners and financiers. And he sued and counter-sued to stay in business or gain advantage. He did some other stuff, too, but these are the kinds of things that seem to set people apart, alongside luck. Some people play by the rules, either legally or their own conscience or both, and some people find ways to stretch these factors or simply break them without regret. Those people go on to be billionaires. And they have an incentive to lie about what they did and how they did it because after all, lying is what got them there in the first place.

You will never know how a business was really built by reading a book about it. And you would probably never find out even if you were a friend of the founder. You may not even be clear on what happened if you were inside the company itself. It’s too complicated and there are too many human factors involved that lend themselves to obfuscating the truth, if it can even be remembered.

One thing I learned from “Shoe Dog” is it’s my own fault if I keep reading this stuff and find myself frustrated at being anything but entertained.

3/5

[amazon asin=1501135910&template=iframe image2]

What Is Design Thinking?

This post is a follow-up to some earlier posts about my recent participation at Stanford’s Design Thinking Bootcamp program. I want to reflect on what I think I know about the “design thinking” approach. I am not an expert or a scholar and I haven’t even read any books on the subject! This is my attempt to process my experiences, not to be authoritative.

As I now think about design thinking, I believe it is really three things:

  1. a specific process for generating new product and service ideas centered around “user experience” (ie, emotion)
  2. a general approach to being creative and innovative, particularly when working in a team
  3. a mindset, attitude or philosophy of psychology which addresses known cognitive biases which prevent people from accessing their natural creativity

I want to tackle these in reverse order.

The Design Thinking mindset

Everyone is and can be creative.

When I say design thinking is a mindset, I think about how much of what I’ve learned centers on the idea of putting oneself into a creative frame of mind. We seem to have both a creative mind, which is open, limitless, imaginative, fun and even a bit wacky, and a critical mind, which is narrow, realistic, fear-based, serious and deeply rooted in the known and knowable.

Design thinkers talk about the “Yes, and…” attitude, taking ideas offered by others and building upon them, rather than trying to shoot them down or explain why they’re wrong or off target. They separate the act of generating ideas from the act of evaluating ideas. They emphasize how we need to understand failure as an opportunity to learn, and to let go of control or thinking you can predict outcomes.

This is really a different way of experiencing life psychologically from what most people know. It’s not just about being positive, though the professional design thinkers I encountered were more positive on average than most people I know. It is an entirely different way to process one’s experiences and infer meaning from them.

Most of the time, most people are trying to avoid making what they perceive to be mistakes, and are looking for the quickest, cheapest way to accomplish a specific goal. But design thinking sets that aside. Mistakes are a part of learning and are to be embraced. It’s not that one purposefully makes mistakes, it’s that what a mistake is is not certain until it’s made and when it’s made, it is accepted as valuable data that shows us what doesn’t work.

And it’s not that design thinking looks for the longest, most expensive way to accomplish a specific goal, it’s an attitude that the destination is not obvious at the outset and so some serendipity is required to make the journey. When I was working on a design thinking project with a co-worker upon my return from the program, they were baffled by my line of questioning in some of the user interviews we conducted– we know what problem we’re trying to solve and how we intend to solve it, so why aren’t we asking people about that? I was taking the conversation anywhere but there, because as I understood it, the problem and what we think is the solution is just a place to start, but the true mindset we want to create is one of open consideration that we’re actually trying to arrive some place very different than the land we think we know.

A general approach to creativity

The mindset mentioned above is indeed a major component to the general creative approach design thinking represents. Without putting yourself into the right mental state, you have little hope of generating the breakthrough creative leaps the design thinking approach is known for.

A related concept is paying attention to space and materials when engaged in creative work. If you want to do different work and think different thoughts, you must physically work differently. Don’t sit at your keyboard, stand up in front of a white board. Don’t keep the ideas you’re ruminating about in your head, write them on colorful sticky notes and splatter them all over the walls so you and your compatriots can fully consider them. And don’t, by any means, think you can find all the answers in your office or traditional workspace– you absolutely must go into the field and talk to real people to find out what they think, rather than assume and guess at the thoughts, experiences and emotions of demographic strawmen.

I might have put this into the mindset area but another important principle is the “bias toward action.” This means not overthinking things and instead trying things. Come up with an idea, and then play with it, try it out on people you come across, see how they react. It rejects the idea that something must be perfectly engineered before it can be shown to other people. Seek “good enough” to get the major point across and go from there.

Design thinking certainly seems to offer tools and value for the individual designer, yet I think it emphasizes teamwork. There is an embedded belief that the individual is never as creative by himself as he is being creative in front of other people trying to do the same thing. Using that “Yes, and…” attitude, a group of people working creatively can work themselves into a motivational frenzy and the energy and random nature of exchange and +1 can take them to territory they don’t otherwise have a map to reach. The path isn’t clear and it isn’t contiguous.

One reason design thinking advocates doing and trying is that it’s a cheaper way to fail, and failure is seen as inevitable. Because humans are not omniscient and are extremely unlikely to come up with the perfect answer the first time, it is easy to predict that it will require multiple attempts at creativity and implementation to get to the final form that works as a solution (if even the problem itself isn’t transformed and reinterpreted along the way).

As a result, there is an emphasis on failing quick and often and not building a lot of cost into failure. Design thinking says that crude mockups and models of intended products or feature sets and the use of play-acting or imaginative role play is enough to try an idea out, get feedback and change. When you’re new to it, it seems a bit ridiculous, a bunch of grown adults essentially playing dress up and putting on a show for one another. Even more ridiculous is trying to get perfect strangers on the street to play along.

But this frugal approach allows you to try a lot of ideas quickly and cheaply. And if you get interesting or unusual reactions, you are gathering the exact data you would’ve wanted to get from focus groups, market surveys, etc.

An interesting aspect of all of this play is that it is highly experiential and is used as a tool to connect with people’s past experiences. That is what design thinkers are after– what is a real experience someone had in the past, and how did it make them feel, and how can they make them feel that same way with a new experience they’re trying to design into a product or service?

A specific process for generating user experiences

So that is some of the philosophical ideas behind design thinking. What we learned was also a specific process with 5 main steps:

  1. Empathize
  2. Define
  3. Ideate
  4. Prototype
  5. Test

The first step involves conducting live empathy interviews with “users” a euphemism for a person who might ultimately be the user of a product or service offering you are thinking about creating. Using a “probe”, which in our case was a set of flash cards with a variety of emotions and a prompt such as “Think of a time when you last X, sort these cards in the order of how strongly you felt each emotion”, the design thinker has an excuse to begin talking to strangers.

It’s easy to fool oneself into believing that the conversation is about the probe/prompt, or about the design problem itself, but it’s not. The goal of the conversation is to get people talking about themselves, sharing experiences and specific memories along with the emotional states they triggered. When those experiences are found or those emotional states are identified, certain transitions can be used to keep digging deeper, such as “You said you were feeling Y, can you tell me about another time you really felt Y?” or “You mentioned Z, can you tell me about a specific time you did Z?”

When doing empathy work, the DTBC recommended the following:

  • Engage with the probe
  • Notice surprising decisions, awkward pauses, facial expressions
  • Follow up and ask “Why?” about the things you notice
  • Seek stories and ask about another time they felt or behaved this way

By capturing strongly felt emotions and the real experiences that generated them, the design thinker is able to move to the second step in the process, which is to Define the user. This is different than what is commonly done in standard market research by studying demographic data, because demographic data is broad, general and based on averages, whereas the design thinking “user” is specific, real and quite limited in their profile. An example of a user definition might be something like this:

“We met Paul, a graphic designer living in the city who fantasizes about running his own dairy farm whenever he eats cheese, his favorite snack”

Paul here is not a demographic profile. He’s a real, quirky dude (that I made up) with a strange contradiction between where he lives and what he fantasizes about, for example. Defining the user typically follows a process called Point of View, which looks like this:

  1. We met… (user you were inspired by)
  2. We were surprised to notice… (tension, contradiction or surprise from their interview)
  3. We wonder if this means… (what did you infer?)
  4. It would be game changing to… (frame up an inspired challenge to solve without dictating what the solution is or might be)

Whether you had a specific design problem when you started, the Define step and the Point of View process can either help bring more clarity to what your problem might really look like, or it might uncover an entirely new problem you had never actually thought of solving before.

The next step is to Ideate. Ideation is the brainstorming part of the design thinking process and most calls for teamwork. You start with a simple prompt, such as “How could we X for Y so they can Z?” You then start coming up with ideas and “Yes! And…” each one as they’re created to add to it or add another idea it inspired. The goal at this stage is not to critique or rationalize ideas but to simply create as many as possible. You’re not after “one idea” you could implement, or the one that is the final solution. You don’t know what that would be, and coming up with only one simply means you have a high chance of discovering later on you’re wrong and picked the wrong horse to bet on.

One technique for coming up with greater volume of new ideas is to use constraints. The constraints could be real but are usually arbitrary and somewhat outlandish, such as “Each idea must cost $1M to implement” or “Each idea must involve technology to implement”. By focusing your creativity tightly around a special constraint you can actually be more creative within that specific domain because your mind is forced to think about the problem from a new angle.

A similar technique is to think about the emotions involved for your user and think of people or organizations or places that those emotions are strongly tied to, then to ask yourself “What would that person/organization/place create for this user?”

When you come up with a large quantity of ideas, you can then move to the next step which is to prototype one of them. As discussed earlier, prototyping is crude. First, the DTBC recommended a role play. Take your idea and set a scene, define the roles involved in playing out the scene to demo the solution selected and improvise within the role play as you try it out multiple times.

Once you’ve role played, you can actually create a crude prototype and other props to do the role play with users. You want to test one key function at a time, so your prototype includes the following information:

  • Product/service name
  • Target user (the one you defined earlier)
  • Intended impact (what does it change for the user?)
  • One key function (this is what you’ll demo/test in the field with your role play)

Materials like cardboard boxes, construction paper, glue, saran wrap, markers, pipe cleaners, PVC tubes, etc. are all sufficient quality for the purposes mentioned. What’s more, they’re cheap and just about any physically able person can design with them.

You’re now ready to take it to the field and Test. But here’s the trick! The Test is really the first step, Empathize. And the prototype is really your probe. It’s all an elaborate ploy to get people talking to you some more, but this time with a slightly more concrete circumstance and with the goal of eliciting that precious experiential and emotional feedback in connection to a real product/service you’re thinking about creating.

Over these 5 steps, which can cycle with as many iterations as necessary to find a worthwhile problem to design for and an exciting solution to create (as defined by user feedback), the innovator is going through what the DTBC refers to as “flare and focus”. In the first step, you flare out your ideas and thinking in new and unusual directions, remaining open to new possibilities and experiences you had never thought of or encountered before. When you begin defining your user, you are focusing on something specific about them you’ve noticed, something concrete that can inspire your design. When you ideate for that user’s dilemma, you’re flaring again, trying to get wildly creative with the belief that no idea is a bad idea. Then you select an actual idea you’re excited about and focus again by developing a specific prototype to demonstrate it to the user. And when you test, you flare out and open up to new reactions and possibilities and begin the cycle anew.

Throughout this flaring and focusing you want to keep your eye on your alignment assessment– how close is your “frame”, the way you’re thinking about a problem that needs solving, to your “concept”, the specific solution you have in mind for solving the problem? Your frame and your concept might both change or only one change as you iterate. You might find your frame is sound but your concept is off the mark, or that you actually have a really interesting product or service but you haven’t quite found the right user who would benefit from it.

Some hallmarks of frame and concept alignment in the form of user feedback are:

  • “Thanks! Is that all you need from me?” indicating the problem or solution do not seem relevant or inspiring to the user
  • “You know what you guys could do that’s a REALLY good idea?” indicating that the user is experiencing relevancy but doesn’t think what’s being offered would work the right way
  • “So is this available for purchase? What does it cost?” indicating that the team has a frame and concept which are closely aligned and verging upon being ready for market

Conclusion

I think there is something to Design Thinking and I am interested to learn more. I am trying to internalize some of the attitudinal or mindset ideas which I think can be helpful in many domains beyond that of creating new product or service ideas specifically. I like a lot of the general processes, tools and techniques for generating creative ideas and tackling solutions to problems from unique angles. I especially like the idea of questioning whether you have the right problem (frame) in the first place!

One application I am considering is using design thinking principles within my family. How might common family problems be resolved differently with design thinking principles employed? What kind of family life or activity could be designed with design thinking?

The concept of designing for a specific user is also challenging for me to consider. As is focusing on real, past experiences rather than future hypotheticals– design thinkers throw out as unusable any speculation about how a person WOULD behave or WOULD feel in a given anticipated situation because it isn’t certain, whereas how they did feel in a specific experience from the past is known.

I plan to read a bit more on the subject and try to rethink some of the organizational problems we face in our business from the mindset of design thinking. Despite my initial failure to complete my Post Program work, I want to use Design Thinking to find a breakthrough, game changing solution rather than find some kind of incremental progress. If our future and existence as an organization truly hangs in the balance, incrementalism can only delay the inevitable, whereas a paradigm shift could offer not only a survival strategy but a way to actually thrive.

Some Takeaways From My Time At The D.School

I’m back from Stanford’s d.school and have a few ideas I jotted in my notebook while I was there:

  1. Learn to celebrate failure; watch how you react to it
  2. Let go of your desire to control outcomes; with humans involved, nothing ever goes according to plan
  3. Try things, practice, iterate
  4. Don’t build expense into prototyping; the more it costs, the harder it is to iterate and change and the less you can learn from your failures
  5. Don’t make insight generation complicated
  6. Where is the burning platform? Look for that place and work on the problems involved
  7. Innovation is the outcome of a process, and innovators are the people who do it
  8. The design thinking process: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test and back again
  9. The answers are not in this building
  10. When empathizing, spend 15% of your time engaging, noticing and following-up and 85% of your time seeking stories
  11. The purpose of your empathy research is to capture emotion; what is it? where does it come from?
  12. Gravitate in your empathizing and your design thinking process between flaring and focusing
  13. When defining, start with an observation, make an inference, then form a hunch that can carry you to insight
  14. Solve one problem at a time
  15. POV essentials: preserve emotion and the individual, use strong language, sensical wording, non-obvious leaps and generate possibilities that lead to problems the team wants to help solve
  16. 5 users are sufficient to capture 85% of usability cases
  17. Tail-end users have explicit needs and better represent the implicit needs of median users
  18. The future is already here, but it’s not evenly distributed
  19. Trusting relationships are the foundation of generative work
  20. Learn how things fail before it matters, not when it does
  21. You can only learn by doing, not by planning
  22. Match prototyping resolution to idea certainty to allow yourself to hear the inevitable critical feedback
  23. Testing = empathy; your prototype is your empathy probe
  24. The value is in the user and their emotions, not in the prototype or experience model itself
  25. The goal is to develop empathy with the user, not the make the prototype perfect; seek understanding
  26. All action aims at advancing the frame and the concept towards convergence
  27. What do your users say about the concept? The users’ reactions and excitement indicate proximity to convergence and likely next steps
  28. 3 elements of storytelling: action, emotion and detail
  29. 100% of people who succeed, start
  30. Struggle and learning are complements; there is no learning without struggle, and the more one struggles, the more one has opportunity to learn; you can not master new knowledge from a place of comfort

Some or even many of these are probably difficult to make sense of or place without further context about the design thinking process.

A Theory of Corporate Governance

“Good managements produce a good average market price, and bad managements produce bad market prices.”

~Benjamin Graham, the Dean of Wall Street, “The Intelligent Investor”

Introduction

In the world of value investing, which fundamentally concerns itself with securities trading at a large discount to indicated or intrinsic value (the Margin of Safety), one thing investors are always on the look out for is the value trap. A value trap is a company that looks really cheap but turns out to be cheap for a reason, ie, it’s actually fairly valued at its present price. Companies in general become mispriced for a variety of reasons, and while value traps are no different in this regard, one reason stands far above others in generating its unfair share of value traps– bad management.

This essay will explore in greater detail the genesis of bad management value traps via the principle that “corporate value is a function of owner agency.” Companies with bad management tend to demonstrate the least owner agency, sometimes approaching an effective zero. As of the present, the principle of owner agency can be explored across separate 8 sub-domains pertaining to the company’s corporate governance standards.

The 8 Sub-domains of Corporate Governance

Whether a company realizes it or not, it can and must make a decision about its corporate governance policy in at least 8 different areas which affect owner agency and thus corporate value:

  • The Board of Directors
  • Company purpose
  • Communication standards
  • Capitalization/capital structure
  • Reporting
  • Fairness
  • Competence
  • Barriers

Each of these sub-domains and the choices involved will be explored below. At the end, we will summarize the “official positions” with regards to what good corporate governance looks like in light of the theory promulgated in this essay.

The Board of Directors

In a company with a diversified ownership structure, the Board of Directors exists to represent shareholders and direct the behavior of management according to their wishes. In other words, the BoD is the primary tool of agency for shareholders of the company who, without official titles or positions of management themselves, have no direct way to influence the conduct of the company, its strategy or policies as owning individuals. The BoD is similar to a “house of representatives” in an elected republic– the representatives exist to serve not their own interests, or the government’s interests, but the interests of the individual voters who put them into power.

The BoD should have broad authority to put in place an overall competitive strategy for the company (what do we make or sell? how do we do it? who do we compete with?) and to hire and fire key, C-level managers (CEO, CFO, COO, corporate comptroller or treasurer). These managers should be fully “answerable” to the BoD and thus, the shareholders, whose property they are responsible for utilizing and safeguarding in the course of business.

In modern public companies, it is common for these top managers to be represented on the board, for example, the CEO is also often the chairman of the BoD and presides over its affairs. This is an enormous conflict of interest, because the CEO can not hold himself accountable as a member of the board, and the purpose of the board is to be influenced by the shareholders, not the hired management. This is especially problematic when the CEO is not a substantial shareholder himself.

Another common state of affairs in public companies is that the BoD does not represent significant shareholders. Individuals legally important stakes (5%+) or significant economic stakes (10-25%) often do not get offered representation on the boards of the companies they own and sometimes nominally control due to the distribution of share ownership in a company. If the Board of Directors doesn’t include individuals who represent the interests of shareholders, it serves no purpose other than to rubber-stamp the initiatives of the management, which means it serves no purpose at all besides the propaganda value of pretending the company has functioning corporate governance through the existence of a Board of Directors.

Company purpose

Why do companies exist?

Historically, companies were formed for the benefit of their owners in order to turn a profit. Some of the first joint stock companies were engaged in material manufacture or entrepreneurial discovery of new lands and trading routes. Long pre-dating formal joint stock companies of Europe in the early 1500s were numerous merchant combines across cultures and the ages which were formed to pool risk in long-distance hauling of cargoes. Because the owners were the only people who put capital into the company, it was the owners who were the only people expecting to derive a direct benefit from the operation of the company in so far as it generated profits– the agents of the company might earn salary and bonus according to the terms of their employment contract, and of course the prevalent State often wished to interest itself via tax, but otherwise the issue was pretty cut and dry.

The modern era has brought with it many innovations in the area of an answer to that question, but none of them seem to be any good. Today we hear talk of “stakeholders”, where a stakeholder seems to be any economic or political interest, such as customers, communities, employees, vendors, foreign nationals, labor unions, governments, etc. who isn’t an actual equity owner in the company. We hear of “corporate social responsibility” (CSR) which is just another way to plead the case of certain “stakeholders” with regards to the deployment of a company’s capital. In vogue since the late 1980s and still popular today is the idea that long-serving management of the company should be the real beneficiaries of the existence of the company and that they should accumulate a lion’s share of the value the company creates because of the key role they play in making the company capital fecund in the first place.

Yes, it seems today that companies exist to serve everyone but those who own them.

Regardless of the answer to this question, it is important to simply have an answer. It becomes a standard of value that a company’s management and employees can be held to in observing their choices and behavior. It can serve to answer the simple question, “Are they doing a good job?” from which many other questions and decisions might emanate.

Without a stated purpose, it is not only impossible to agree to where everyone is going but it is impossible to govern the corporation so that it gets there. Certain purposes exclude certain ends and certain methods while allowing certain others.

Communication standards

With regards to how the company and the Board of Directors communicates with shareholders, there are also certain standards that can be implemented to guide action.

A common policy seemingly in place at many companies is clubsmanship and secrecy– executive management is unwilling to provide basic answers to shareholder questions and requests for information, often going so far as to put up unnecessary obstacles to proving they are in fact a shareholder in the first place. And the Board of Directors, captured by the management, facilitate this by refusing to assist the shareholders in their requests, to bring pressure upon management to provide the information (legally) requested and often times they will even make themselves unavailable or unresponsive to shareholders entirely.

The opposite pole would look like this: the management of the company assumes a goodwill posture and provides answers to any (legal) information request made. If the company is of sufficient size and scale and it is fielding a lot of such requests, it may make a special individual (such as an IR agent) available to help source answers. It might also look for a scalable solution, by putting commonly requested corporate documents (financial statements, records of ownership, minutes from board meetings, etc.) into the public domain via its website, and to also offer an FAQ session for answers to repeated inquiries.

As such information is legally due to shareholders anyway and can’t really harm the company by being shared, it makes sense to offer it to anyone who asks, shareholder, potential shareholder or simply a curious stranger. It is not a redacted espionage memo and it doesn’t require any special classification system or hierarchy of security clearances to access.

The Board can facilitate this process as well by being in regular contact with larger shareholders to understand their needs and concerns for the company they own, and to communicate these thoughts to management in board meetings and report back their findings to shareholders in the process.

Capitalization/capital structure

Public companies are in a unique position in terms of their ability to raise capital and finance their projects. Because of their public nature, it is a relatively simple affair to do a rights offering and issue new shares, debt or other securities. Even more important, if ever the market treats the company unfairly, they have the opportunity to buy back their shares from concerned shareholders at a discount to intrinsic value. The company is always in a better position when it is owned by people who believe in the vision and direction of the company, which can be achieved by buying back shares from those “distressed” sellers who have lost confidence.

One role of the BoD and corporate governance is to determine what the best capital structure is at any given time in a company’s life given its future plans and strategies. This means making high level decisions about the debt to equity ratio, if applicable, and also about the issuance or buyback of shares more generally.

Another thing the BoD can facilitate as an act of corporate governance is being efficient with the company’s capital– dividending it out when the company has more capital than projects, and issuing rights to bring capital back in when it has more profitable projects than it has capital to deploy on them.

This is not a one-time decision. It is something a company should be examining on a periodic basis– either quarterly, annually, or any time a major change in its market price or project pipeline occurs. Companies that hoard capital they don’t need do their investors a disservice because they forgo the economic returns available on the surplus capital, which could be deployed at higher rates of return in other enterprises. And companies that refuse to expand the share base in response to important project opportunities make a similar mistake but inverse.

Reporting

Markets move on information. Without information about a company, investors are left with nothing to make a decision off of and so they can not act rationally. They become forced to gamble and speculate. For a company that is not in a hyped industry, the gamble is often made in fear– shareholders sell out at any price to avoid association with a “black box.” It is a critical aspect of corporate governance to have a consistent reporting policy in place to update shareholders on the performance of the company’s strategy over time and to explain key financial data to them.

This kind of reporting requires: transparency, honesty and articulate capabilities. The chairman, being the head of the Board of Directors which represents the shareholders, is the most likely individual to communicate with shareholders about the state of their company. He might append letters from the CEO and other key executives as well if he so desires, but each of these individuals has an incentive to patronize their reader and focus on what went well. The chairman, having no duty to anyone but the shareholders and reality, is in a better position to see the whole hog and not just the lipstick on the pig.

For reporting to be meaningful, it must take into consideration the entire strategy and how the operations worked to achieve it or fail it. Glossy PR brochures highlighting the charity and good works of the management or employees, of the high level successes that did not translate to the bottom line, or to a stylized, marketing view of the company and its operations that does not drive to the key objectives and how they were met or missed, do not do shareholders any good.

While it’s true that the annual report is a key “marketing” piece in attracting knowledgeable shareholders, its primary purpose is to inform, not to sell. It must focus on the good, the bad and the ugly, not the positive or the bright side.

Fairness

Tied up in the ideas of representation and company purpose is the idea of fairness– are all shareholders treated equally? And are all managers and employees treated the same with regards to their duties to the shareholders?

There are two separate but related concepts of fairness at stake. One is the fairness of decisions between majority and minority shareholders, aka, “taking minority capital hostage.” The other is the fairness of decisions between shareholders and agents of the company, aka, “being subservient to loyalty or tradition.”

It is a sadly common sin amongst many public companies with decisive majority owners, especially owners who are insiders and part of management, that they find ways to employ the company’s capital or govern the company which benefit them at the expense of the passive, minority shareholders. An example of this would be a majority shareholder who is also a manager, who is earning an outsize salary and delivering a subpar return on equity compared to the industry or market, who refuses to “fire” themselves as a manager or scale back their pay. The minority shareholders are in effect subsidizing this poor performance with their capital, which is trapped in the company controlled by the majority shareholder.

This is not “fair” because it doesn’t treat the minority and majority shareholders as economic equals– the majority shareholder enjoys a special benefit or subsidy that the minority shareholder pays for. If the company did not exist, and this arrangement was being proposed as a condition of forming the company, no rational minority shareholder would agree to it. If they wouldn’t agree to it de novo, they can’t be thought of as agreeing to it as part of a going concern. This would be similar in a political system where some citizens are treated as “second class” by the law and discriminated against to the advantage of the privileged class.

The other sin amongst public companies is holding on to operating units or employees or managers who are underperforming in their jobs by some agreed upon, objective standards. These units are typically retained out of a sense of tradition (“We’re an X company, we’ll always be an X company”) or personal loyalty (“Y has been with the company for so many years, we can’t put them out on the street now”). Clearly, these kinds of decisions could easily conflict with a stated purpose such as “To maximize profits to shareholders.” They again represent subsidy. And the fact is that no company has infinite resources or can afford to engage in charity without limit; and if it can’t afford without limit, it can’t afford WITH limits, as the economic consequences are the same– the company is wasting capital on ineffective means.

Adhering to loyalty or tradition at the expense of shareholders means turning the business into a charity. Charity is a private virtue and a public vice and it has no place in a public company in this sense.

Competence

Modern companies are complex organizations with extensive economic resources at their command. The average public company, regardless of market price, has millions to tens of millions of dollars of shareholder capital involved in ongoing operations. There is too much to keep track of, and too much at stake, for a company to allow incompetent people to manage this level of responsibility.

Corporate governance serves another function here in setting standards of value for managers and employees in terms of the competence required in their positions of relative responsibility. Importantly, the Board of Directors can set standards in specific areas, such as financial or economic concepts which have an important bearing on the company’s risk position or the stability and profitability of its operations over time. Internal capital allocation, that is, the determination of how to deploy the company’s capital (buybacks, dividends, the raising of finance, or the investing of capital into operations or liquidating of capital so employed), is a seemingly simple discipline which nonetheless has a magnified impact on the company’s operations and its wealth as a whole– it requires a specific level of competence in the basic concepts and dilemmas involved for a person to add value. Many companies are run by people who do not understand capital allocation, have never studied the issues involved and often aren’t even aware of the momentous decisions they are making with regards to it, instead letting personal prejudice or momentary whim be the arbiter of decisions costing millions of dollars with long-lasting consequences for the company into the uncertain and unknowable future.

The Board of Directors can strongly influence the competence of the company and its management by researching and instituting relevant standards of competence needed in key decision-making areas and working to educate and provide resources to the company’s agents employed in these areas.

Barriers

In economic and business literature the concept of “competitive advantage” often revolves around a related concept of “moats”. A moat is a barrier to entry in a competitive market that preserves the value of incumbent firms by allowing them to spend resources on deploying their business model rather than spending those resources on defending it from competitors looking to do the same.

In the world of corporate governance, a similar phenomenon exists: “shareholder defense” tactics aimed at preventing “takeovers.” However, there is a subtle difference in the nature and virtue of each.

In the business competition sense, moats which provide competitive advantage usually exist as a structural part of the industry– they are embedded in the nature of the economic activity itself or the incentives competitors would face that are innate to margin structure, human behavior, etc. They usually can not be constructed or developed purposefully. Not so with takeover defenses. These are things that a company can or can not choose to employ and which the law often gives power to, implicitly or explicitly.

Competitive advantages protect companies from other companies. But shareholder defense mechanisms do not protect shareholders from other investors– they protect managers from their shareholders!

The actual effect of takeover defense mechanisms, when employed, is to drive a wedge between the people who own the company (the shareholders) and the people who control it (the management) by limiting the authority and control the shareholders have over dismissing or countermanding the management’s decisions.

Staggered boards, for example, help to ensure that change at the board level happens slowly (if at all), rather than as quickly as shareholder ownership changes. If there are 5 board seats and all are held by “insiders” and only 2 come up for bid every few years, then it may be 6 or more years, for example, for a shareholder who manages to obtain a majority of shares of the company to see his majority influence reflected in the composition of the board. That means a long period of time where existing management can work against the shareholder or at cross-purposes.

Poison pills, another common strategy, work to similar effect. A poison pill provision essentially neuters the voting power of a shareholder who manages to accumulate a substantial fraction of the company’s outstanding shares. If the provision says that any shares owned over 10% will vote at 10%, it prevents any specific shareholder from obtaining voting control, which protects the management from being told to change their tune or from being thrown out entirely.

It seems counter-intuitive, but removing barriers to entry for ownership of the firm is an important piece of corporate governance policy to work out. And much like the popular theory of democratic politics or republicanism, reserving the “right to vote” or the legitimate authority of the voters over their political appointees results in a situation where the appointees behave irresponsibly and often build up power and prestige at the expense of the people they were hired to represent.

“Official Positions” of Good Corporate Governance
Outlined below is an attempt at an “official” good corporate governance doctrine that any concerned company, its Board and shareholders could adopt to improve the corporate governance situation at the company. In so doing, it is believed that the company will attract quality, long-term oriented shareholders willing to pay a fair price for a properly managed and profitable enterprise. The items elaborated on below serve to maximize owner agency and with corporate value being a function of that agency, they should also serve the maximize the value of the company.
  • The board of directors should represent — meaning, be constituted of — significant shareholders and/or their agents
  • The company should be run for the purpose of maximizing the present value of expected cash flows to shareholders
  • There should be a constant dialog at the board level which includes larger shareholders about the best way to achieve the stated purpose
  • When the opportunity for capital/equity is low, money should flow out of the company; share buybacks and dividends are the way for money to flow out; when the opportunity is high, capital should flow back in; a rights offering (with transferable rights) is the cheapest and fairest way for money to flow back in
  • The annual report should have an essay or letter by the chairman (who is ultimately responsible for achieving the stated purpose) reiterating the objective, discussing the level of achievement in the prior year and outlining the strategy that has been agreed upon to pursue it going forward
  • It is unfair for a majority or manager to retain employees or operations for sentimental reasons unless they satisfy the purpose of maximizing the present value of expected cash flows to shareholders
  • Anyone responsible for achieving the objective should have the necessary grounding in finance and economics to understand how to carry the work out (study an agreed upon bibliography)
  • Management/corporate “shareholder defense”/takeover defense mechanisms such as staggered boards, poison pills, limits on shareholder meetings and proposals, secrecy/lack of disclosure, etc., destroy shareholder value by driving a wedge between ownership and control

Intro to Design Thinking

I have the privilege of attending the Stanford d.school’s Design Thinking Bootcamp, an opportunity I was turned on to by a friend in the venture capital community. In preparation for the program, attendees were asked to conduct an “Ideation” session at their place of work with other managers and decision-makers in their organization. This is an opportunity to not only get an introduction to the attitudes and tools used in design thinking, but also to begin practicing with these ideas immediately within one’s business as part of the design thinking meta is “a bias toward action.”

Here are some takeaways about thinking creatively and generating ideas in a collaborative environment that I’ve gained so far:

  • Adopt a “Yes, and…” Attitude
  • First generate, then evaluate
  • Don’t just find one idea
  • Think in terms of a specific problem
  • Focus on emotions
  • Use constraints to increase idea volume
  • Use analogous thinking to go some place else
  • Use “QBD” to evaluate ideas
  • Think about the “headline”, not the “article”
  • If it doesn’t get written down, it didn’t happen

More details on each of these ideas, and impressions from my actual ideation sessions, follow:

Adopt a “Yes, and…” Attitude

When people come together to create ideas, they have a habit of seeking to find what is wrong with their collaborators thinking, rather than what is right. The goal in design thinking is to first come up with a lot of ideas, not to find the “right” idea as quickly as possible. A helpful attitude to adopt is “Yes, and…” which means, whenever your collaborators come up with an idea, reply “Yes, and…” and then build off of their idea, either with an additional flourish or iteration, or with another idea you have in mind that their idea has led you to think. Don’t try to make yourself look smart, try to make your partners look brilliant.

First generate, then evaluate

Another intuitive habit most people bring with them to creative sessions is to try to evaluate ideas as fast as they’re generated. No sooner does someone have a new idea than does that person, or a collaborator, try to figure out if the idea “fits” with the constraints of the project. Many ideas that are either excellent on their own, or could lead to an excellent and realizable idea, are tossed out in the instant evaluation before they’ve had a chance to make an impact. Get in the habit of separating the generation of ideas and the thinking through the merits of the ideas generated. Never confuse the two or allow the processes to mingle in your thoughts or practice.

Don’t just find one idea

When you’ve got a problem, you only need ONE solution. And ultimately, you can only implement one solution– time, resources, etc. are scarce. So it’s easy to think the goal is to “just come up with one idea.” But trying to find the right idea means evaluating as you generate, and it also means pre-qualifying your own thinking before you even generate ideas. Your goal in ideation is actually to generate as many ideas as you can, regardless of whether they make sense, actually solve your problem, are feasible, etc. Go for quantity, not quality, when generating ideas.

Think in terms of a specific problem

It helps to come up with ideas when your problem is specific enough to be solved by an idea you come up with. This means thinking in terms of a specific group of people and in terms of a specific change you want to bring about, either an action or a state of mind. A prompt that can help is to frame your problem with this ad lib– “What can we create for… [specific group of people] that makes them/that helps them [choose one] … [a physical action you want them to take, or a state of mind you want them to adopt]?” An example would be, “What can we create for 10 to 12 year old kids that makes them excited to eat vegetables?” The problem is specific– it is about 10 to 12 year old kids, a group of people with distinct qualities. And what the solution provides is also specific– it will generate a feeling of excitement in them in relation to their eating vegetables.

Focus on emotions

You’ve got your problem. It’s important to think of the mental state of the “user” you’re solving for. Almost inevitably, finding a solution will involve focusing on the change in the mental state that is necessary to motivate action. Sometimes, the change in the mental state by itself is the goal, for example, “What can we create for customers who are angry with us that will make them love us and tell all their friends?” Translating the problem during the ideation process into an emotional state creates a valuable constraint (discussed below) for increasing idea volume.

Use constraints to increase idea volume

It is counterintuitive, but putting constraints on your idea process actually allows you to be even more creative because it focuses the mind in specific ways. Some constraints used as examples in the ideation workshop were “Every idea must cost $1 million” or “Every idea must get you in trouble with your boss”. Imagine you actually have a budget constraint– you only have $50,000 to spend on a solution. Coming with the REAL budget as a constraint is likely to limit your thinking because you’ll immediately begin pre-qualifying and evaluating ideas as you try to generate them.

But if you invert the real constraint into an imaginary one where you must SPEND a large sum of money on your idea as a minimum, you will end up with a sense of much more freedom. Later, you can take those high dollar ideas and figure out how to reduce the cost to something that is actually affordable. The inversion process allows you to hurdle over your real constraint which would limit your creativity and therefore your ability to find a real solution.

You could think of arbitrary constraints, simply to inspire creative and offbeat thinking, or you could try inverting real constraints to trick yourself into thinking past them. The d.school profs use the metaphor of the thumb over the garden hose, which forces high pressure jets of water to spray over a larger area versus just using the innate pressure of the hose which tends to dribble out.

Use analogous thinking to go some place else

Another tool for successful ideation is to create analogous situations and imagine how those people or institutions would handle the creation of a solution for your problem. To find analogies, you translate your problem into the emotional state, mentioned earlier. Sometimes it’s easy and obvious, because you already have an emotional change as a condition of your solution. But if you don’t, this can take some creativity in and of itself to figure out what the emotion is you’re searching for. As an example, if your problem was “What can we create for our hiring department that helps them to only hire people who exceed our standards?” the emotional state might be “confidence.”

Once you have your emotional state, you must ask yourself, “What kind of person, group or place is superb at generating this kind of emotion?” Once you have a list of such entities that excel at generating this emotion, you can do an iterative process of asking yourself, “What would X create for… that helps them/that makes them…?”

Now you are in someone else’s shoes, thinking about the world the way they do and you have unlocked an entirely different form of creativity from your own.

Use “QBD” to evaluate ideas

Okay, you’ve got a ton of ideas at this point. Now it’s (finally) time to evaluate them. But you’re not just going to start deciding which are possible and which are insane. Instead, you’re going to use more creativity to evaluate your ideas. You’re going to think about which ideas are Quick, Breakthrough or Delightful.

Quick ideas may not be full or perfect solutions, but they could be reasonably implemented right away and this incremental progress would have an immediate impact– things would get better as far as your problem is concerned. This is an important way of thinking about selecting solutions because often no solution is found in search of a holistic or perfect one, which either doesn’t exist or can’t be accessed in a linear way of thinking. By selecting a Quick solution, you can take steps toward what might be a final, perfect solution and get a win in the meantime.

Breakthrough ideas might not work, but if they did, they’d be a game changer. They’d be an all new way of solving the problem, or they’d give the group who employs them a distinct competitive advantage, or greatly leverage their efforts. Breakthrough ideas help us think about how to shift paradigms and find solutions that don’t just work, but work insanely well.

Delightful ideas are just that– if we implement them, people feel GREAT. And feeling great is an important part of solving problems and making progress in our work or business. When we find Delightful ideas, we find ways to inspire, motivate and energize people that can lead to other creativity or effectiveness that we can’t imagine or anticipate in simply solving the problem.

Think about the “headline”, not the “article”

When generating and sharing ideas, it’s important to think and communicate in terms of the big impact, high level concept of the idea and not get bogged down in the nitty gritty details– that way lies the habit of criticizing, condemning and evaluating before a good idea can take root, or inspire another. The instructors refer to this as thinking about the “headline” and not the “article.” An example would be, “Hire an expert interviewer” versus “Find a person with X years of experience interviewing people, pay them $Y per year, assign them duties of A, B and C, they will report to Z and will be measured in their performance by E, F and G.” You can find any number of things in the article version that might be unrealistic or impractical, if you can even come up with all the necessary details. It is putting the cart before the horse. You first have to come up with the big idea and see how it could lead to a Quick, Breakthrough or Delightful improvement for your problem, and then you can go about fleshing it out and figuring out how to make it practically work.

If it doesn’t get written down, it didn’t happen

This idea is a good practice for any meeting or information-sharing activity of any kind but it seems to be especially relevant to the process of ideation– if you aren’t writing ideas down as you’re coming up with them, they may as well not exist. By the end of a 1hr long ideation session, you might have come up with fifty or sixty different ideas and concepts as a team. Who can remember what those were by the end of it? So it is important to write them down as you go. The instructors recommend using sticky notes and slapping them on the wall as you go, which not only serves to keep things written down and makes it easy to move ideas around as you review and ideate, but the small amount of space necessarily forces one to think in “headline” terms.

Another thing that should be written down, repeatedly, is the prompt of the problem you are trying to solve (“What can we create for…?”) as well as the specific constraints, analogies, etc., that you are bringing to bear on them as you focus your ideation in different ways.

Our experience with ideation as a team

My ideation workshop involved 5 other people in our organization in addition to myself, all group managers or individuals with lead authority at the operating unit level. We split up into 2 teams of three to work through our ideation process.

One takeaway is that collaborative idea generation is FUN. We genuinely had a good time working together to come up with solutions to our organization’s problems. There was a lot of laughter, spirited talking and debate and enthusiasm. Often times a team would race ahead with a prompt or keep working after designated time was up because they were so caught up in their thinking and idea generation.

Another takeaway is that anyone can be creative. Most of the operating managers were selected because they tend to experiment and try new things in their operations, but what really makes them excellent in their roles is that they relentlessly stick to a proven system of processes and procedures. There may have been some fear that people who are really good enforcing a set of orders might not be able to come up with creative new ideas. This just wasn’t the case. They all had a ton of ideas and I think one thing that was clear by the end of the session was that everyone would’ve liked to have selected their individual problem they brought to the group for ideation work when we could only pick one at a time.

A third takeaway is that the trail one follows to arrive at workable solutions often starts in an unpredictable and highly abstract place. It highlighted for us the value of every idea generated, and the importance of separating generation from evaluation. Where you start is rarely where you will end and if you can embrace the idea of accepting all ideas as valuable and disregarding their merit or feasibility at the outset, you can let those ideas unlock all kinds of interesting solutions you otherwise may not have accessed.

Finally, we realized that even when we came up with an idea that we thought was Breakthrough or Delightful, but lacked obvious practical application, we could begin “trimming” and paring down the idea from there to find something we COULD do with it that still tapped into the essence or principle of the original idea. For example, one group came up with the idea of hiring a professional athlete to be a motivational coach to our organization’s managers. We don’t have the budget for that, nor is that athlete necessarily available for hire, but we can think about what kind of qualities we believe he would bring to such a role and look for a person we could hire that can bring those qualities, or the way we could change processes or definitions of roles within the organization to incorporate those values we now realize are essential to helping us solve a known problem. I think of this as “analogizing from the analogy”.

I can see how the ideation process, which we are just being introduced to through this practice work, can add value for all people at all levels of responsibility within our organization. It is inspiring and motivating, it creates the “bias towards action” in the person doing it and it yields real results which can actually make things better for us, our customers and our team. I am sold!

Review – The First Tycoon (#review, #books, #capitalism, #history, #entrepreneurship)

[amazon text=The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt&asin=1400031745]

by T.J. Stiles, published 2010

How and why did Cornelius Vanderbilt, steamship and railroad entrepreneur, become America’s “first tycoon” and in the process earn a fortune worth an estimated $100M in the 1870s? The simplest answer provided by this lengthy biography is that Vanderbilt was able to think about abstract entities such as corporations as representing competitive business opportunities in an age when most other people controlling them thought of them as profitable grants of privilege from the State (which they were). The result was that Vanderbilt thought strategically about his acquisitions in the sense of actively seeking to own things with identifiable competitive advantages (the best route, the lowest operating costs, network effects) which he would then exploit while slashing prices, while his competitors were stuck playing defense until they gave up and offered to buy him out in self-defense.

But the book really doesn’t offer enough specific and concrete evidence to validate this thesis, it’s really just a hunch and an attempt to read between the lines of what is offered. Like most biographers and historians, Stiles consistently fluctuates between the two extremes of failing to provide the necessary evidence to actually understand what was happening and why, and forcing a tortured narrative metaphor of “the capitalist as king/general” that ends up just confusing the issues. Vanderbilt is constantly in “rate wars”, is “battling” for control of companies and finds himself with an “empire” after yet another “conquest.” But we never hear this language in Vanderbilt’s own quotations (based upon written correspondence, newspaper interviews and courtroom testimony) which are numerous.

How Vanderbilt saw himself as a businessman and operator, and how Stiles chooses to depict him with his jarring anachronistic fadism are even more incongruous because Stiles himself spends much of the time arguing against his own descriptions! It is a puzzling choice. Perhaps books about old tyme capitalists don’t sell well without a not so subtle nod to the villainous Robber Baron laying in wait inside of all of them, but it’s a shame because the much more interesting story would’ve been the one told through Vanderbilt’s own eyes. Not to mention the fact that the Robber Baron myth is a lie perpetrated against Vanderbilt, not because he was a horrible monopolist but because he was such a pain in the ass to the horrible monopolists!

[The NYT] attacked him for, as he wrote elsewhere, “driving too sharp a competition” [… deriding] “competition for competition’s sake; competition which crowds out legitimate enterprises… or imposes tribute upon them” [… and called on] “our mercantile community to look the curse of competition fully in the face.”

Similarly, there are constant references to “the world Vanderbilt helped make” with reference to markets and businesses, the city of New York and the emergent nation of the United States of America. And while certainly the man’s actions and decisions were influential and impactful, Vanderbilt was not a statesman and never saw himself as anything more than an ambitious private citizen. There is not one example in the book of Vanderbilt plotting to remake the world in his own image. This is just another forced biographical trope that dopey readers, editors and authors seem to think makes a story ten times better to insist upon when the world just doesn’t have that many psychopaths in fact.

Other information missing from the story that seems essential to charting Vanderbilt’s rise: what he paid for various business assets and how he financed them, what he earned from them and what he paid in taxes, when he controlled an asset and when he was a minority partner, etc. Especially, we should like to know his leverage over time and how he was able to benefit from the various money panics that occurred repeatedly throughout his business career. One thing is for certain, he seemed to always be a buyer in such scenarios, never a seller, and he seemed comfortable being in control of his investments and making and enforcing operating policy, rather than being a mere financial speculator such as a partner like Daniel Drew might.

There are many charming bits of early American social and business vernacular we learn sprinkled throughout the book and its strength is in providing so many direct quotations from primary sources, especially the business media of the day, which really help to flavor the narrative and transport the reader to the place and time described. But this can also be a weakness, when the author ends up name-dropping a litany of capitalists involved in some deal or scheme and dribbling their worries and anxieties from private correspondence over several pages as the deal unfolds. I found it difficult to follow and mostly tuned out what I assume are supposed to be the action-packed moments of the story.

I first read this book shortly after it was published in 2010. I since decided to re-read it and while I wish I had had a bit more energy and focus when I did, I am glad of it. I took a new and different appreciation from some of the book’s events than I did on first pass, which suggests I’ve either improved my mental framework or at least changed it in meaningful ways over the last 7 years. Vanderbilt still comes across as a unique and heroic figure, a true titanic will. The narrative is as confused and cluttered as ever, and while I think there were the makings of a better, more concisely argued book here, and the author certainly has done his research, I am not convinced he did the right research or even fully understood what lessons he was taking away from it. The result is I’ve since downgraded the value of this particular work in my mind and think it belongs to a pretty standard class of historical biographies. Vanderbilt the man himself though is easily a five out of five as far as members of humanity are concerned!

I’ve got far more I’d be willing and able to discuss about this work and Vanderbilt as an example in private correspondence than I think I could fit into a short, coherent blog post, so really ruminating on this story will have to wait for another time and a different occasion.

3/5

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