Sean Park Portrait
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Articles tagged 'management'

The Connected Company

Last week I was away with my family for a few days. In a location where there was no working internet connection and a very sketchy 3G signal. As a start-up founder with a never-ending to do list, this was quite disconcerting (especially as it was unexpected.) So aside from freaking out for a couple days, I had no choice but to catch up on both sleep (I hadn’t quite realized how big my sleep deficit had become!) and reading. Which ended up reminding me that disconnecting from time to time can pay dividends.

On the way out the door, from my pile of literally dozens of books “to read”, I had happened to grab two books to take with me: Tim Harford‘s The Undercover Economist and a pre-release copy of Dave Gray‘s The Connected Company.

The Undercover Economist is a terrific account of how economics drives behaviors and his view on how a change in our underlying economic drivers is fundamentally undermining our existing (traditional) organizational and institutional frameworks particularly resonated with me:

…economists believe there’s an important difference between being in favor of markets and being in favor of business, especially particular businesses. A politician who is in favor of markets believes in the importance of competition and wants to prevent businesses from getting too much scarcity power. A politician who’s too influenced by corporate lobbyists will do exactly the reverse.

At the end of the book, he includes the introduction to a later book Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure. He tells the story of a young Russian engineer Peter Palchinsky who challenged the top-down, hierarchical thinking of first Tsarist and then communist Russia over a hundred years ago:

What Palchinsky realized was that most real-world problems are more complex than we think…His method for dealing with this could be summarized as three “Palchinsky Principles”:

  • first, seek out new ideas and try new things;
  • second, when trying something new, do it on a scale where failure is survivable;
  • third, seek out feedback and learn from your mistakes as you go along

…Most organizations and most forms of politics have the same difficulty in carrying out the simple process of variation and selection…if we are to accept variation, we must also accept that some of these new approaches will not work well. That is not a tempting proposition for a politician or chief executive to try to sell…

…There is a limit to how much honest feedback most leaders really want to hear; and because we know this, most of us sugar-coat our opinions whenever we speak to a powerful person. In a deep hierarchy, that process is repeated many times, until the truth is utterly concealed inside a thick layer of sweet-talk…Traditional organizations are badly equipped to benefit from a decentralized process of trial and error…(yet) the more complex and elusive our problems are, the more effective trial and error becomes, relative to the alternatives. Yet it is an approach that runs counter to our instincts, and to the way in which traditional organizations work.

Building on these principles, he suggests the recipe for successfully adapting is comprise of three essential steps:

  • Try new things, in the expectation some will fail;
  • Make failure survivable, because it will be common;
  • Make sure you know when you’ve failed.

What you want to do as a company is maximize the number of experiments you can do per unit of time. -Jeff Bezos

Much as I enjoyed Tim’s book, I was blown away by The Connected Company. Simply stated, I suspect it will go down as one of the most important management books of the early 21st century. It is a remarkable treatise on the new optimal organizational framework for businesses of the Information Age. I’ll admit to some bias as I don’t think I could have written a more articulate or complete account of the philosophy and theory underlying our approach to building Anthemis.

We are reaching a complexity tipping point, beyond which organizations will not be able to succeed without a change in structure.

…And if the world is constantly changing, the only sustainable competitive advantage is to be the one most responsive to change. That means that the speed at which you can learn is the only thing that can give you a long-term sustainable advantage. The problem is that while today’s companies are very good at processing information and producing outputs, they don’t know how to learn.

Indeed the fractal (Dave uses the term “podular”) nature of how we are building Anthemis is a direct attempt to create a more adaptable – and ultimately more resilient – company fit for the challenges of the 21st century. By explicitly embracing a networked rather than hierarchical structure we have built in the ability to experiment and fail while at the same time giving us many more chances to succeed. Dave also highlights that this new type of organization is in essence a complex adaptive system and some of you might recall from previous posts and presentations that the work of Herbert Simon on this subject has had a profound impact on our thinking.

To design connected companies we must think of the company as a complex set of connections and potential connections, a distributed organism with brains, eyes and ears everywhere, whether they are employees, partners, customers or suppliers. Most importantly, a connected company must be able to respond dynamically to change, to learn and adapt in an uncertain, ambiguous and constantly evolving environment.

A connected company is a learning company.

We see Anthemis as a network, an ecosystem where our main responsibilities are (1) to articulate and evangelize a robust vision – re-inventing finance for the Information Age – and (2) to create a fertile environment where passionate, talented individuals, teams and companies pursuing various components of this vision are provided with the tools – capital, talent, connections – that materially improve their chances of succeeding. Anthemis as a city (as opposed to a traditional company) is another interesting metaphor for our approach that Dave also explores:

Taken together, agile teams, service contracts, composability and loose coupling allow the creation of complex service clusters and networks that operate in a peer-to-peer, citylike way. In fact, these kinds of “service cities” can sometimes be so complex that the only way to manage them is not to manage them. Instead, the company focuses on creating an environment within which they can thrive.

The key to creating a successful organization in an era of unrelenting (and often accelerating) change is to build for agility. However the traditional organizational structures that were so successful in the Industrial Age are fundamentally unable to respond to this challenge:

Many business systems are tightly coupled, like trains on a track, in order to maximize control and efficiency. But what the business environment requires today is not efficiency but flexibility. So we have these tightly coupled systems and the rails are not pointing in the right direction. And changing the rails, although we feel it is necessary, is complex and expensive to do. So we sit in these business meetings, setting goals and making our strategic plans, arguing about which way the rails should be pointing, when what we really need is to get off the train altogether and embrace a completely different system and approach.

Dave highlights as one of today’s leading companies that has already adopted many of the tenets of the connected company. He describes their approach as breaking big problems down into small ones; distributing authority, design, creativity and decision-making to the smallest possible units and setting them free to innovate. At Anthemis, we take this one step further as most of the teams focused on each of these “smaller” problems are actually companies in their own right with their initial connection into the Anthemis ecosystem being forged via a financial investment. Aside from our legal structure however, the important distinction between ourselves and a venture capital fund is our clear long-term vision of creating a new leader in financial services: the vision is the glue.

The way we think about it is, on those big things, we want to be stubborn on the vision and flexible about the details. -Jeff Bezos

Essentially our job (at the Anthemis Group node) in this context boils down to designing and building the structure and system that supports the people and businesses in our network and then operating that system. Further we have a key role in creating and supporting a broad and diverse portfolio of experiments in order to maximize our chances of discovering and building the best and most sustainable financial services businesses in a context of rapid technological change and an evolving competitive landscape.

And perhaps in a future updated edition of his book, Dave will be able to point to us as a great example of a successful “connected company”!

Power in networks comes from awareness and influence, not control. -Dave Gray

Update: In this video, Gary Hamel talks about many similar themes, highlighting that our existing management and organizational paradigms are 100 years old and increasingly anachronistic in a world of accelerating change.

Gary Hamel: Reinventing the Technology of Human Accomplishment

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A Kodak Moment

Over the years he watched digital projects lose battles for research dollars. Even though film’s market share was declining, the profit margins were still high and digital seemed an expensive, risky bet.

He recalls efforts in the 1980s to drive innovation by setting up smaller spin-off companies within Kodak, but “it just didn’t work.” Venture companies in Silicon Valley are “pretty wild”, “in Rochester, people come to work at 8 and go home at 5.”

When disruptive technologies appear, there is a lot of uncertainty in the transition from old to new. “The challenge is not so much in developing new technology, but rather shifting the business model in terms of the way firms create and capture value.

These are just a few excerpts from a great piece “What’s Wrong with This Picture: Kodak’s 30-year Slide into Bankruptcy” from Knowledge @ Wharton that (inadvertently) does a terrific job explaining the context and gigantic opportunity that drove Uday and I to create Anthemis and it’s networked ecosystem approach to re-inventing financial services for the digital century. Let’s take each of these in turn:

< < Over the years he watched digital projects lose battles for research dollars. Even though film's market share was declining, the profit margins were still high and digital seemed an expensive, risky bet. >>

I lived this directly and in full Kodachrome color my last few years working for Dresdner Kleinwort, culminating in the creation and subsequent dismantlement following my departure (in 2006) of a new business unit in Capital Markets called Digital Markets. This was the brainchild of then CIO (of the year!) JP Rangaswami and myself, built on the basic premise that exponential technological progress was going to drive an entirely new optimal business model for capital markets activities (as opposed to simply enabling accelerating growth of the existing traditional business models which it had done so well for the previous two decades or so.) That technology, rather than simply being an (important) enabler of the business, was set to become the central driver and that accordingly we had an exceptional opportunity to get out in front of this disruptive change – embracing not resisting – affording us the once-in-a-paradigm-shift chance to fundamentally change (for the better) our competitive position. Further, we felt that Dresdner Kleinwort was ideally positioned in its mediocrity to seize this opportunity: we had much less to lose than the market leaders. (And as history shows, in fact the firm had pretty much nothing to lose…RIP.) But the problem was – and almost always is with large, established, publicly-listed companies – that the vast majority of decision-makers had significant vested interests in maintaining the status quo, and insufficient sensitivity to the downside. Classic agent/principal conflict. Turkeys just don’t vote for Christmas. It’s not rational for them to do so. This is a fact of life, not something really worth bemoaning.

< < He recalls efforts in the 1980s to drive innovation by setting up smaller spin-off companies within Kodak, but "it just didn't work." Venture companies in Silicon Valley are "pretty wild", "in Rochester, people come to work at 8 and go home at 5." >>

My experiences as a senior manager at Dresdner Kleinwort / Allianz led me to increasingly understand that there was a fundamental incompatibility between successfully managing a large incumbent organization and successfully nurturing dynamic, entrepreneurial, disruptive new ventures. I like to think of it as the corporate equivalent of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle: just as one cannot simultaneously know the position and momentum of a particle, neither can one reap the advantages of a large-scale, established corporation and simultaneously drive and manage emerging, innovative new business models. (Call it Park’s Corporate Paradox?) And in the past 5 or so years since leaving the traditional corporate world, my empirical experience of working closely with start-ups (including starting one!) has only increased my conviction in what I now believe is a fundamental truth. Dresdner Kleinwort (and Paribas before that) – as old hands in the markets world will I hope attest – had positive reputations in the industry for their (relative) ability to innovate, to be at the forefront of new markets and ideas. I believe a key reason they were able to do this was actually because they were well, let’s just say “loosely” managed. They were anything but well-oiled machines. Which, frankly, if you are going to take best advantage of the benefits of being a large, established corporation, is what you need to be. The innovation that emerged in these organizations was a by-product of their relatively weak organizational structures. Put another way, if disruptive innovations are akin to viruses (which I think is not a bad metaphor) then these companies had relatively weaker immune systems (than their market leading counterparts like Goldman Sachs or JP Morgan for example.) However, that is not to say that they had no immune response, and ultimately the incumbent prerogative to maintain the status quo and protect the vital organs won out (in Paribas’ case accelerated by its acquisition by the more tightly managed BNP.)

The important truth to grasp is not that one (the incumbent) is better or worse than the other (the start-up), rather that they are incompatible – structurally, culturally, strategically – in the same host. Yet they are Yin and Yang, and need each other, “complementary opposites that interact within a greater whole, as part of a dynamic system.” The optimal state occurs when they exist in symbiosis – this is in fact the central tenant of Anthemis – our vision, our mission is to act as a substrate that catalyzes, nurtures and enhances this symbiotic relationship. We exist to “improve the health of other companies who grow near us.”

< < When disruptive technologies appear, there is a lot of uncertainty in the transition from old to new. "The challenge is not so much in developing new technology, but rather shifting the business model in terms of the way firms create and capture value. >>

It’s not really about the technology per se, it’s about what technology allows you to do. Often I hear people describe us as “financial technology” investors, but at the risk of being pedantic, this is not really the case. We invest in people and companies that use technology to enable better, often disruptive, new business models. Businesses that seek to address the fundamental needs of their customers in new and better ways that were previously either impossible or sometimes even unthinkable without the enabling power of fast evolving information and communication technologies. It’s not the same thing. And although we invest in these new companies, we are not investors – at least not in the mainstream sense. We aren’t a venture capital or private equity fund. We are ourselves leveraging technology to create a new type of organization, one that we believe is highly additive to the existing ecosystem of large incumbents, start-ups and traditional venture and growth investors. Complementary rather than competitive.

Too often, the conversation around innovation is framed as big v. small, good v. evil and works against the grain of what we believe is the objective reality. We want to re-frame the conversation, work with the grain of the history and the market to help the various different participants in the (financial services) ecosystem leverage their innate advantages (and mitigate their inherent weaknesses.) And if we succeed in this mission, we are certain that we will create enormous value for our own shareholders along the way.

Networks not hierarchies

We believe that the most successful companies of the future – both large and small – will be the ones who embrace a network-driven philosophy and operating ethos. The vertically-integrated Sloan-ian corporation of the 20th century, so ideally adapted to the economy of the Industrial Age, will increasingly struggle to remain relevant in the environment of accelerating cultural and technological change the characterizes the economy of the 21st century Information Age. Large, sector-leading incumbents will need to become more self-aware of both their defensible strengths and core competencies and of their inherent weaknesses and blind spots, which includes the ability to manage disruptive change. They will need to purge all vestiges of not-invented-here mentalities and pro-actively support (both financially and commercially) wider, outside innovation networks while developing optimized methodologies for bringing these outside innovations into their organizations as they mature. And continuously remain aware of the always changing ferment on the edges of their competitive space. Small, cutting-edge start-ups will need to become increasingly good at leveraging existing infrastructures – not just compute and storage infrastructure – but distribution and industry specific infrastructures, or as John Borthwick of Betaworks points out, the best new disruptive innovators “do what (they) do best and outsource the rest.”

This new paradigm creates a significant opportunity for a new type of company to emerge. Companies that are natively optimized to act as a connective layer between the old and the new. Companies that are deliberately tuned to operate within the new network-centric economy. Companies that are explicitly built to nurture ecosystems of talent, technologies and products and services. Anthemis is one of these new companies – a “third place” so to speak – positioned between the established industry leaders and the emerging new innovators, acting as a sort of “translation layer” helping the former to understand and adapt to the changing environment and the latter to identify and focus on the biggest market opportunities while leveraging the core strengths of the existing industry infrastructure. While our focus is on financial services and marketplaces, I am certain this same opportunity exists across any number of industries or markets. Indeed, Betaworks – “A New Medium Company” is a good example of a successful emerging company with a similar positioning and philosophy but focused on the media space. If they don’t exist already, I am sure similar constructs would work well in other industries.

Rusting away

Often when I give presentations on our vision of the future of finance, I am challenged with the question: “But do you really think [insert favorite giant financial services company] will disappear?”, I am at pains to make clear that (a) I don’t know (b) it’s possible, though not necessarily likely, or will take a very (very) long time and (c) that it kind of misses the point in that one would hope that their aspiration is to thrive and not simply survive.

There are a number of different failure modes for established market leaders, most of which are relatively unspectacular and many that don’t actually result in the company disappearing. We remember the Lehmans, the Enrons and the WorldComs but thankfully these are actually the exception. The greatest risk for these companies is not catastrophic overnight disaster but a slow inexorable decline into irrelevancy or even bankruptcy. Big companies typically don’t blow up, they mostly just rust away. The actual speed of this decline often depends on the nature of the sector, it’s “installed” base and particularly it’s regulatory “relevance” in particular. Leaders in highly regulated and deeply embedded (in our economies) industries like finance and telecoms can survive for years and even decades by deploying their considerable resources to protect their position and slow (but not stop) their decline. But how much better off would their shareholders, employees and customers be if they instead marshaled these same resources in a more constructive direction, embracing their real strengths and acknowledging their structural weaknesses in order to evolve and succeed in our changing world, rather that just settling for survival? (Side note: this strikes to the heart of the principal/agent problem that plagues many big, listed companies – for the middle and senior management of these firms, simply ensuring their company survives is often a more than good enough outcome, requiring significantly less energy and psychological commitment while delivering sufficient financial rewards and positional prestige to meet or exceed their personal aspirations. I am not criticizing so much as acknowledging that human nature being what it is, that it is damn hard to resist such a path, even for those with the best intentions.)

Say Cheese

The experts at Wharton note that “adapting to technological change can be especially challenging for established companies like Kodak because entrenched leadership often finds it difficult to break old patterns that once spelled success. Kodak’s history shows that innovation alone isn’t enough; companies must also have a clear business strategy that can adapt to changing times. Without one, disruptive innovations can sink a company’s fortunes — even when the innovations are its own.”

The world is changing. Financial services are no longer immune to these forces of fundamental change. Changing technology, demography and culture are unstoppable forces that if ignored will slowly but surely rust away the competitive advantages of traditional business models. Resist it or embrace it. But you can’t change it. It’s a bit scary sure but also incredibly exciting. Jump in. If you are in financial services, we can probably help.

It’s a better choice than waiting for your Kodak moment.

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Spilling dirty secrets.

Luke Williams, author of Disrupt: Think the Unthinkable to Spark Transformation in Your Business, lays out a roadmap for developing disruptive hypotheses:

To meaningfully differentiate yourself from everyone else in the same space, you have to define the situation in the industry, segment, or category that you want to challenge. Here’s what a list of what you want to challenge might look like:

  • This is an area in which everyone seems to be stuck in the same predicament and nothing has changed in a very long time.
  • This is an area where profit performance is average—it really should be more successful than it is.
  • This is a category where growth is slow and everything seems the same.

Once you have a situation to focus on, describe it in one sentence: “How can we disrupt the competitive landscape in [insert your situation] by delivering an unexpected solution?”

I guess if you had to boil our mission statement at Anthemis Group down to one question,

How can we disrupt the competitive landscape in financial services by delivering an unexpected solution?”

would probably do the trick quite nicely.

Of course, our approach to answering this question is perhaps not to answer it directly but rather to seek out and support a constellation of passionate, brilliant, “what if?” thinking entrepreneurs who are asking this question with respect to specific sectors, products and geographies in financial services (banking, payments, risk management, identity, investing, etc.) and contribute our intellectual and financial capital towards amplifying their vision and improving their chances of success. For all you capital markets geeks out there, we think this approach generates (as close as you can get to) pure “alpha” in that our returns are pretty much divorced from general market movements as the impact on valuation of success (or failure) in building these new businesses far exceeds the second or third order impacts on valuation of prevailing overall public (or even) private market conditions. Clearly, our success is not guaranteed – not by any stretch of the imagination – but at least the input parameters, the choices we make, are the key drivers and within our control. (And not subject to the vagaries of a co-hosted blade pumped up with algos in New Jersey…cf my last post.)

This in our opinion is a much better set of reference terms. Even more so because it doesn’t rely on our unique genius, but rather structurally taps in to a deep and expanding pool of talented people, pursuing their own visions and goals, loosely-coupled through the ecosystem and networks we strive to nurture and grow. We don’t have to make all the decisions. We don’t have to have all the brilliant ideas. We don’t have to do all the heavy lifting. Which is certainly a relief to us and I suspect to our investors as well. If you want to take the ecosystem metaphor a bit further, I guess it would be fair to say that our position is akin to dirt in forest. Or swamp water in a wetland. ie Trying to provide a fertile and supporting substrate upon which the wonders of evolution and life can flourish and grow. Perhaps not a very sexy image, but ask any farmer and she’ll tell you there is nothing as wonderful as a field of deep, dark, steaming dirt.Soil.

And coming back to Luke’s three foundational criteria, I think it is clear to all that you can take pretty much any sector of financial services and it would emphatically tick each box. It’s an incredibly fertile environment for disruption. So you know, we’ve got that going for us. We just need to make sure we plant the right seeds.

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Read this book.

Hugh MacLeod - Evil Plans

Change is not death. Fear of change is death.

I woke up reasonably early this morning with a long list of things to do today.  But given that it’s Saturday, I thought it’d be ok to start slowly with a cup of green tea and a few minutes with one of the many as yet unread books beckoning from the coffee table.  So I picked up Hugh MacLeod’s “Evil Plans: Having Fun on the Road to World Domination”.   I first met Hugh about 6 or so years ago via my friend JP, and was immediately charmed by his great cartoons and unique and brutally insightful characterisation of the “corporate world.”  Sort of a grown-up’s Scott Adams…

About 5 years ago I read Po Bronson‘s “What Should I Do with My Life?” and it made an impact.  Not too long after I ended up leaving a long and pretty successful career in investment banking to take a new path – one that has led to the creation of Anthemis Group and to moving our family to Geneva.  If you aren’t sure you are living your life the way you’d like to, as a first step I’d say read this book.  If nothing else Po is an entertaining and engaging writer and I’m sure you’ll enjoy the stories he tells.

As long as you feel inspired, your life is being well spent.

Hugh’s book took only an hour to read, but it brought back into laser focus the real reasons for which I chose the path I am now on. As he states – and all entrepreneurs know – there are a lot of times when it just seems overwhelming. But he also reminds us that that is where passion and purpose come to our rescue. Without these, we are doomed to fail. With them, we succeed even in failure.  Buy it. Read it. And keep it close to your desk to lean on in those moments of doubt.

Hugh MacLeod - Market in Something to Believe In

And start working on that evil plan!

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The right stuff.

I often, ok sometimes, get asked what I look for in an entrepreneur / company founder / ceo and despite having a very clear vision of the ideal profile in my mind, I used to struggle to articulate it clearly and concisely. Then last fall I read The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life and found that the legendary Mr. Buffett (albeit in a very different context – can you guess??) – had done the work for me. With some paraphrasing and adaptation, here is what he said and what I’ve adopted as my “elevator” founders test:

When I invest in an entrepreneur, I’m going into a foxhole with this guy and he has to be the right choice. The question is, who has all the qualities that will provide leadership to the company, cause me not to worry for a second about whether anything was going on that would subsequently embarrass the company, or cause it to fail through lack of ambition or effort. When I talk to entrepreneurs what goes through my mind is essentially the same questions that would go through your mind if you were deciding who you wanted to be a trustee under your will, or who you wanted to have marry your daughter. I look for the kind of person who is going to be able to make decisions as to what should get to me and what could get solved below the line. A person who will tell me all the bad news, because good news always takes care of itself in business.

And when I look across the founders of our portfolio companies, I would definitely be comfortable with any of them being trustees of my will. As for my daughter, well they’re all too old for her anyway and besides they wouldn’t stand a chance…

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I’m a scorpion; it’s my nature.

McKinsey surveyed a bunch of executives and found that:

84 percent of executives say innovation is extremely or very important to their companies’ growth strategy. The results also show that the approach companies use to generate good ideas and turn them into products and services has changed little since before the crisis, and not because executives thought what they were doing worked perfectly. Further, many of the challenges—finding the right talent, encouraging collaboration and risk taking, organizing the innovation process from beginning to end—are remarkably consistent. Indeed, surveys over the past few years suggest that the core barriers to successful innovation haven’t changed, and companies have made little progress in surmounting them.

As I’ve written many times before, I think they are barking up the wrong tree.  They are trying to have their cake and eat it too which in the context of a traditionally organized (read 20th century business school optimal model) large company is like trying to pee in the corner of a round room.  ie Pursuing ‘non-linear’ innovation is not only difficult for these kinds of organisations, it actually requires a framework that is often diametrically opposed to the framework that governs the rest of their business, the business that actually pays the (current) bills.  And so it is entirely unsurprising that companies find it hard / impossible to assimilate this within their structures, culture and reward systems.  Perhaps paradoxically, one could argue that the better managed a large company is for its current/core business, the worse this disconnect;  in poorly managed large companies there is probably more room to roam “off the reservation” so to speak…  But I don’t think anyone – including me – would suggest that it would create overall value to manage poorly just in order to pick up a bit of innovation juice around the edges.

So what’s a big company to do?  Well I think they should look to invest some of their capital outside their walls.  Not corporate venture per se – the corporate antibodies end up killing / ensuring failure of dedicated corporate venture initiatives 9 times out of 10.  (A notable exception to this rule – the one of ten (hundred?) – is Intel Capital.  If you think your company can do this then go for it.  I personally suspect that one of the reasons Intel Capital managed to avoid institutional purgatory is that Intel has a very strong entrepreneurial culture and leadership (deep into the firm not just at the top) that had first hand memories of building businesses from the ground up.  Google Ventures may enjoy similar success for the same reasons…)  For the rest, I would suggest setting aside a certain amount of capital to make passive minority investments either directly or via specialist sector-specific early stage investors (like us if you are a financial institution, yes I’m talking my book) in companies innovating – especially in those using ‘non-linear’/disruptive approaches – in their markets.

Passive – meaning no board seats, no control – because the alternative would result in adverse selection bias or mission dilution/suffocation or both.  Adverse selection, because the best, brightest and most ambitious start-ups in your sector will not take your money if you ask for control and mission dilution / suffocation because if they do take your money and give you some control, your corporate antibodies will do everything they can to assimilate and/or crush what they will correctly see as a threat to the companies core business.

So why bother at all?  Why not just wait to see who emerges as winners and then buy them once the risk is gone?  Principally for two reasons (in order of importance):

  1. Because you have to have a “position” to really harvest the informational value:  this is the trader in me speaking – anyone who has ever traded any asset knows instinctively that the difference between an ‘opinion’ and actually having a ‘position’ is huge.  Indeed any good trader who needs to follow any particular market closely – even if this market isn’t their first order concern and/or they don’t (yet) have any strong conviction – will take a small/nominal position in said market in order to ‘be in the flow’ and truly feel the rhythm of that market.  Put another way, picture the impact of an internal board presentation on top 10 new industry trends and 20 new companies ‘to watch’ vs a presentation of ‘this is how the 20 companies we have invested in are doing’ and tell me honestly that both will have the same impact…
  2. Because you just might not get the chance to buy the winners – either at all (think Google, Facebook, etc.) or it will cost you very very dearly and worse you probably won’t have enough information to truely know / understand what you are buying (the most toxic manifestation of this is what I call the ‘panic buy’ – eg NewsCorp/MySpace.) In other words, the buy later strategy has it’s own set of very real risks.  And even when/if you do ‘buy later’ a company that you haven’t invested in, as a result of (1) above you will almost certainly be able to better mitigate some of these ‘buy later’ risks.

So why don’t more big companies do this?  I’m not sure.  Would be interesting if McKinsey would ask this question (they are more likely to get answers than The Park Paradigm, not sure I have a lot of Fortune500 C-suite readers!)  I suspect it is because the time horizons needed to be successful in such a strategy (5-10 years) far exceed the time horizons of most senior executives.  And related to this, that they are afraid – quite possibly correctly – that “Wall Street”/”the City” will chastise them for spending any money on ‘speculative’ investments,  that it is “not their job” and that they should “focus on their core”.  Funny however how the most successful executives and companies however manage to ignore the peanut gallery and pursue their plans with conviction and diligence.  Perhaps these are the companies who may listen and find value in my suggested approach…

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Coach not captain.

Fred Destin wrote an excellent post mapping out the appropriate roles for a founder/CEO vs a non-executive/investor in a start-up. Actually, his advice holds true for any company but I suspect is much more often a problem in start-ups due to the executive teams generally having little or no real experience of working with and for a Board of Directors. I’m not going to rewrite or paraphrase his post, here is an exerpt but really if you are a start-up executive, please just go read it:

If you really believe in what you are doing, you come to the board telling board members what you are planning to do, taking considered advice on whether this is the right strategy, considering that advice and executing on what is, in your best judgement, the right path for the business. That’s what you are there to do. Take decisions fast, don’t fall for analysis-paralysis, trust your gut, execute and iterate. As Tim Ferriss would say, ask for forgiveness, not permission.

I particularly liked his list of why executives need to know how to manage their non-executives and filter their input:

Here are the top five lighthearted reasons why VC’s should not drive your strategy:

  • We forget 50% of what we said at the last board
  • We don’t know the people inside the company and hence have no clue what the team can really execute
  • We meet many smart people and hence we have way too many ideas that you cannot possibly implement
  • We are focused on the 5 year vision, yet we are focused on the quarter too, even we are confused
  • We don’t need to deliver on it, you do. We come and collect when the job is done.

Item 1 and 3 hit particularly close to home!

The (dysfunctional) situation Fred describes reminds me of American football where the coaches (non-executives) are constantly telling the players (executives) what to do. I think the dynamic that is needed in a corporate setting is much more rugby, the coaches work with the players throughout the season, helping them to develop both their individual skills and a positive team dynamic, scouting the competition and staying on the lookout for new talent, but ultimately when the players run out onto the field, they are on their own. They need to make their own decisions and they determine who wins and who loses. The coach? Well he sits in the stands and watches. I’ve never seen one yet who scored a try or kicked a goal.

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I wish my old firm had been like this.

Image representing Netflix as depicted in Crun...
Image via CrunchBase

I finally got around to reading the now infamous Netflix presentation on corporate culture. I had more than a dozen people point it out to me and must admit this actually raised my level of skepticism – “sure, ok another vapid corporate culture slideshow…”

I was wrong. I wish I had written this. These 9 values and how they should be implemented align entirely with my thinking and – my former colleagues will have to confirm / refute this – how I tried to run the businesses I was responsible for at DrKW, and how I tried to use my influence on the Management Committee to get the firm to adopt these values. In this latter goal I would have to say I failed miserably. As for the former, I think I was more successful but ultimately it was perhaps futile, surrounded as we were by a sea of culture that was strikingly different.

The sad thing is, I’m convinced had we adopted this culture – and as a relatively small investment bank it was within our control – I think the financial and business outcome for DrKW would have been quite different. I would go so far as to say it would continue to exist today and would have thrived as a nimble and unique competitor in the financial wreckage of the past two years. Instead, it was inevitably destined to disappear: to small to save, big enough to blow up.

But DrKW was unfortunately not unique in rejecting this positive culture. I can’t think of any investment banks that would entertain truly practicing even two or three of the Netflix values, let alone all nine. (I’ve only ever worked for three banks so maybe I’m wrong. Please correct me if you think this is the case.) And yet were they run along these lines, I am certain that the worst of the afflictions that beset the financial system would not have materialized. The crisis would not have been. I know that is a pretty strong statement. But I don’t think it is hyperbole.

There are many talented and extraordinary people in the financial services industry who, fed up with the toxic cultures, leave it as soon as they can afford to. I’m sure you could build an incredibly successful company by attracting this talent with a cultural framework like this. Maybe we’ll be able to do it. I’m sure someone will. I can’t wait.

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Cloud computing = on-demand business innovation

While in the technology and venture capital world, a mention of cloud computing these days is more likely to elicit yawns than excitement, in 99% of the rest of the business world it is all too often looked upon as ‘just another new technology’, something for IT to think and or worry about. Whenever I’m in this other world I try to make the case that ‘the Cloud’ is as transformational a technology as electrification or the invention of the microchip. In fact, I’m becoming increasingly convinced that it will be the technology that lies at the core of the sixth techno-economic paradigm of the modern era:

Just as Intel’s 4004 microprocessor was the catalyst for a wave of creative destruction in the 70s and 80s, will AWS prove the same for the 00s and 10s? Probably. We’re seeing it already. And it’s going to disrupt the hell out of the mastodons of industry across most sectors of the economy. Why? Because their cultures and leaders are entirely ill-equipped to face such a fundamental paradigm shift. They know how to play by the old rules. The strategic competitive advantages they built up over decades risk suddenly – poof! – to become obsolete.

And yet all too often, I’m met not with disbelief but with apathy, indifference. You can see the thoughts forming in their heads: “I’m a CEO, a business man, a producer! Why is Sean boring me with this technology stuff? Why doesn’t he just talk to the CIO?” Worse, too often when I talk to senior technology managers in big corporations, they also are disdainful, thinking: “Yeah, yeah, that’s all fine for your start-ups and Web2.whatever companies, but this is a real business. Serious. Not some website for teenagers to swap gossip.” Ok I’m exaggerating but a lot less than you think. Sometimes I figure I must not be saying it right. So I’m always on the lookout for good articulations of the potential and importance of cloud computing and its incredible relevance to anyone who is pretending to run a business. Especially a big one.

Peter Fingar has written a great one, a summary of the new book Dot Cloud: The 21st Century Business Platform. He sums it up nicely:

In short, Enterprise IT must extend out to Consumer IT, otherwise those companies simply won’t be able to compete. As we’ll explore, Web 2.0 has changed the landscape with social networks, and companies can ill afford to ignore the shift…

…Cloud computing isn’t just about on-demand IT; it’s about on-demand business innovation…

…Cloud computing isn’t just for small- and medium-sized companies and garage startups. Cloud computing makes it possible to create new business platforms that will allow companies to change their business models and collaborate in powerful new ways that weren’t practical before. What’s important for companies to consider is that cloud computing isn’t about technology, it’s about technology-enabled business models.

So if you know a CEO, or any senior managers (in any business) pass them this article. It will only take 10 minutes to read. And maybe it just might make them reconsider. And maybe they’ll invite me to lunch! 😉

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One (more) reason big finance is broken.

Every executive committee member of a large bank, exchange or insurance company should read Kirk Wylie’s latest post to understand why their cultures are broken and why they so regularly find their organisations blithely running off the edge of a cliff, comfortable in the knowledge that, “well, hey at least we’re all doing it so it must be ok” and safe in the knowledge that their is a big taxpayer airbag (or trampoline?) at the bottom protecting them from any nasty consequences. Of course they are unlikely to – except in the unlikely event that it gets published in one of the traditional echo chamber publications like the FT or the WSJ.*

I’ll resist the temptation to copy/paste the whole post here but please go read it as this excerpt doesn’t give it justice:

Independent, entrepreneurial techies can actually make the biggest impact in the organizations that fight against them the most: they’re the ones that need them the most. Use them as agents for change, challenging assumptions, challenging entrenched attitudes, challenging technical group-think. Otherwise, your worst employees (the ones who can’t really get a better job elsewhere) win, and you as an organization fail.

Kirk is speaking of technologists, but the same thing applies across the organization. But big organizations kill entrepreneurship, actually it’s in their DNA. It’s not news, tall poppies and all that. As I was leaving 16 years of working – mostly happily – in big organizations I spent a lot of time thinking about why this was (and also why I hadn’t noticed it earlier in my career.) The answer to the second question was really because of luck. For 90% of my investment banking career I had the good fortune to be right in the heart of building three new and transformational markets: first the Ecu/Euro market, then the European credit markets and finally the move to ‘electronic’ capital markets. Throughout this part of my career, innovation, entrepreneuralism and independence actually helped me succeed because there was no pre-existing status quo to upset. This only became apparent to me in hindsight.

The answer to the first question is now obvious to me, but it wasn’t always so and really only revealed itself when I left and was able to step back and look at the machine from the outside. The expression ‘well-oiled’ machine says it all. This is the ultimate compliment used to describe a successfully managed organization. So where does non-linear innovation, disruption, questioning fit in a well-oiled machine? It doesn’t. In fact the more ‘well-oiled’ the machine, the less tolerant it is of exceptions. (Which also explains why I operated happily for so long at DrKW!) Switching metaphors, entrepreneurship is seen as a virus in these companies and they produce potent ‘corporate antibodies’ to seek out and subdue any such viral outbreak and they do everything (pace Kirk) to innoculate themselves against them in the first place.

But what is a CEO to do? The ‘well-oiled’ bit is equally important. I am sympathetic to this. (I mean if I was in charge I wouldn’t want too many of me’s running around, that would be chaos.) It’s not an easy question to answer and is made even harder (especially if you are running a public company) by the fact that the visible benefits of the entrepreneurial genes are only realized over time – I’d guess at least 4-5 years at a minimum and sometimes it might take as long as a full business cycle. And yet the average leadership tenure in these organizations is at best at the short end of that, and the compensation and stock market cycles are much shorter. I’ll be frank and say up front, I don’t have an answer but I’ve got a couple ideas I think are worth trying.

The first is to set – from the top – a deliberate human resource policy of seeking to “doping” the organization with a limited and controlled number of people like Kirk. (Doping is the process of adding controlled impurities to a material – for instance a semiconductor, or metallic alloy – to improve it’s useful properties.) This needs to be managed very deliberately, like a program – put a senior HR person in charge of this and manage it: these people will likely have a higher turnover, complain more often, get into trouble, want to change projects and/or departments and so need their own career track. I’m not sure what the correct ratio is, but I would guess it’s on the order of 1-2% of total staff, not necessarily evenly distributed throughout the company. (I knew my Materials Science degree would come in handy one day!)

The second is to create – and then protect institutionally, not personally – a specific department dedicated to exploring ‘white space’. When I say protect institutionally, I mean frame it like a trust so it cannot be undone or hacked by successive waves of management and is insulated from the quarter on quarter, year on year vagaries of the economy and/or the companies results. If you don’t do this, you will inevitably fall victim to the problems Azeem enumerates in his great post on why corporate venture capital (almost always) doesn’t work. Before all the serious, “pragmatic” people out there roll your eyes all at once (if indeed any such types would consider wasting time reading a blog) this doesn’t and shouldn’t need to be a big ask. Again probably on the order of 1-2% (even less for the biggest companies), of resources. The best example in practice I can think of is Xerox PARC, although the irony there is that Xerox didn’t really figure out how to plug PARC’s non-linear thinking and brilliant innovation back into the company (or at least not very well.) But perhaps that is not a bad thing (in proving my point) because I would posit that all other things being equal, Xerox’s share price has been higher (than it otherwise would have been) because they owned this asset. This cheap, deep out-of-the-money call option on the future. As far I as can tell, this is also what BT is trying to do with BT Design led by my friend JP and it is heartening to see that – at least so far – he is being allowed to continue to pursue this vision despite (and hopefully even because of?) the very poor results of the past couple years. I don’t know of any truly analogous initiatives in big finance.

And indeed that is (one of the reasons) we decided to set up Nauiokas Park. Clearly we’re not the whole solution, but we think we can play a key role for big financial institutions: a way to have (some of) their cake and eat it too: by entrusting a relatively small amount of financial capital to us, we think we can create just such a verdant ‘garden of innovation’, allowing them to harvest the fruits of some of the most dynamic entrepreneurs active in their industry, while protecting and nuturing them, away from the noxious antibodies of the corporate organism. Indeed, taking a page out of John Seely Brown, I guess you could describe our mission as seeking to create a vibrant knowledge ecology for finance and markets, and help our stakeholders profit from it:

There’s a fundamental change from finding ways to innovate inside a corporation to leveraging the knowledge ecologies of many little companies in places like Silicon Valley. You find that the shift turns much of the classical R&D into A&D – that is, acquisition and development. Larger companies can buy the research they need and instantly acquire a diverse portfolio of research groups.

I’ll be honest though, it’s not an easy sell. Even for the corporate leaders who ‘get it’ the reflex instinct is to think (sometimes aloud) “makes sense, but we can do that ourselves”. Well, you can’t prove a negative, but we’ve spent a long time inside these same big financial institutions, and our many years of experience led us to conclude that it is bloody hard to do (for all the reasons above and more.) On the bright side, being challenged makes you think harder and forces you to refine and adapt your ideas, ultimately making them better. Hearts and minds. Hearts and minds. Wish us luck.

* Just to be clear, I have nothing against the FT or the WSJ per se, I read them regularly (well WSJ not so much) and think they are solid publications. I’m not suggesting they aren’t important sources of information and opinion – you’d be stupid not to read them if you are in finance – just that, and this is the wonderful thing about the world in 2009 – I think you need to read much more widely and in particular embrace at least a diversity of viewpoints, if not views.

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