In the Language of People

John comes to your home one day and tells you he wants to share it with you. You already share your home with other people, family and friends, but you have some room to spare. You don’t mind too much — or maybe you do. Either way, as long as everyone respects one another, it should work out all right.

But shortly after John moves in, you regret ever having opened the door to him.

In addition to eating everyone’s food, using everyone’s toothpaste (leaving the cap off, of course), and using up all the hot water in hour-long showers each morning, John’s telling everyone that he’s devised a fair system to ensure everyone gets an “equitable share” based on their contribution around the house. Nobody really understands what this means, especially coming from John, who would appear to be the least likely to benefit from any such scheme. Nevertheless, he insists that this is the rational way to do things and that this would be how things would run going forward. John is 6 foot 5 inches, 280 pounds of muscle, shaved head, and tattoo. He’s made a compelling case, so everyone agrees to adhere to his system.

In John’s system, he is responsible for managing access to the food and the utilities. So, if you need bread, you need to buy it from John. True, you made the bread yourselves before John arrived, but the problem is, it was not being exploited efficiently, which means there was some waste occurring and there was no way to benefit from it (other than receiving satisfaction from a full belly, which apparently means waste). Now, with proper management in place, everyone has fair access to the bread, and value can be created.

Unfortunately, not everyone can afford the 1 JohnDollar/slice price. John says this is not the fault of the system. It simply means that those people without sufficient JohnDollars need to be provided with opportunities to earn JohnDollars. Now, John has some JohnDollars, which he’s offering in exchange for performing various administration and security duties, because it’s important to keep track of inventory and finances and to ensure nobody tries to steal the bread that’s not rightfully theirs. (Also, note that John is selling your delicious bread to his rich friends for the equivalent of 2 JohnDollars/slice, so really, you’re getting a good deal here.)

So, John is generous, but he can’t hire everyone into administration and security services. He can’t afford that, because although he could make as many JohnDollars as he wants (using your construction paper and scissors), that doesn’t create value, it doesn’t contribute to growth. So, in the interest of creating value and providing growth opportunities for everyone, he’s offered to lend people JohnDollars to start their own businesses. (Of course, interest payments on those loans need to be made in a timely manner.)

Incidentally, John has also laid claim to the house and the land on which it was built. Apparently, he’s now good friends with the neighbors (after some run-ins in the past) and they’ve acknowledged him as the owner of the house, so it’s pretty much settled. Anyway, it’s all clearly laid out in the paperwork he’s drafted and had notarized, perfectly legal as per John’s system. As John is now the homeowner, he’s entitled to charge rent to those inhabiting it: 25 JohnDollars per person per month. Your business is basically catering to John. It earns you 30 JohnDollars per month. You have 5 JohnDollars left to pay the interest on your loan (4 JohnDollars) and buy food…

If you were in this situation in the real world, you might think you’d be able to appeal to some civil authority. Or perhaps you’d all get together and physically remove John from the house. Unfortunately, it is the real world. The authorities cannot help you. Physically throwing out someone like John, well, easier said than done… Millions of people are living in this situation today. If you are living it, your situation is called “poverty”.

From Quantum Physics to Tree Hugging

More great programming on BBC World. Today, it was the debate Why Poverty? Participating, a number of personalities, most recognizable being Tony Blair. He always looks like such an idiot wherever he shows up. Like a bizarre cross between Peter Sellers and Chris Barrie. Still, I have to applaud him. I believe he believes in his mission and I also believe he genuinely wants to do good and despite embarrassing himself, he’s still trying to learn, like me, slowly, slowly. Maybe someday he will have some valuable insights to share. Not yet, though. (Governance? Milquetoast, please!)

But most important for me seeing this program, I was introduced to an incredible personality: one Vandana Shiva. Unfortunately, my mental state right now is such that I can barely string two words together, and I don’t feel like I can do justice to her as a person or her message. I would rather leave it to her to speak for herself. The debate isn’t available online at this time, but I’ve included a link to a previous HARDTalk interview with her.

Normally, I’m not one to gush, but it’s so rare to see someone with such a combination of energy and intelligence. How does one speak with such authority without carrying a big stick? (She’s not quiet by any stretch, though.)

I’ve signed the petition and I’m starting my seed bank.

Do Leaders Make a Difference?

There’s a great podcast over at BBC4 that considers the question of how much influence do leaders really have. It’s well worth the 30 minutes (only up on the site until October 2013, so hurry), but if you don’t feel like bothering, I’ll try to summarize.

It contains snippets of interviews with a variety of people (economists, politicians, historians, psychologists) of different political stripes (mostly left-leaning, but not all) talking about leaders in the spheres of politics, business, and sports and how much impact they really have.

One of the psych folks cited the fundamental attribution error as a driving force behind people’s tendency to blame or praise individuals for the success or failure of everything from the world economy to football teams. The fundamental attribution error suggests that people tend to attribute the cause of an event to the personalities of the individual actors (people involved in the event) instead of looking at situational factors (the context in which the event occurred), which often play a greater role. For example, if a company does poorly, we might be tempted to say, “they had poor management practices and made a series of bad decisions.” But other companies in a similar situation may have made the exact same decisions, but with very different outcomes. What was the economic climate like in general at that time? Was their target market particularly affected by a change in it? Were there geo-political issues? Some other factors not brought to light?

The reality often is more complicated than we want to admit, but we don’t want to consider that, because it’s too much work. It’s much easier to put a human face on it and lay the blame at the feet of some person when things don’t go our way. It works the other way too. If things go unexpectedly well, we might want to attribute it to some seemingly unique individual. Then we proceed to over-analyze this person in search of that elusive quality that others can cultivate in the hope that they too will one day be able to reproduce that success. As if the Midas touch could be distilled, bottled, and sold. 7 Habits, anyone?

So, we overemphasize the importance of individuals and their abilities, which leads organizations to focus on finding “rock stars” with mad skillz (at least until the next upstarts come along) and egos to match instead of finding people who are not only good, but more importantly, are able to raise the group’s collective capacity to do great stuff. And this, not by carrying them, but by helping them to up their individual game.

Anyway, that’s what I took away (with my two or three cents added for emphasis) and I agree with it for the most part. The one thing I think they all either neglected to mention or failed to recognize is that there are leaders that do affect positive change within their spheres of influence. Whether that change translates into financial success is another thing. But ultimately, it isn’t even about how much money they make, how many trophies they take home, or whatever legacy is important in their field. It’s about how they serve the people who work for them. Real leaders represent values that others can aspire to. They model behavior that makes others think, “hey, I can do that too.” When real leaders fail, they don’t point the finger at everyone else. And when real leaders succeed, they’re humble about it and they make everyone feel like they succeeded. These are the leaders with the greatest legacies of all.

Shameless Buddy Plug

(Images from and Schlugggy)

As a thought leader, you don’t need to check behind you to see if anyone is following. But I suppose it helps to have a few followers if you’re trying to convince people that you are one.

A friend of mine started blogging about 6 months ago, around the time he was laid off by a major game development shop. Ostensibly, his blog is about game development and more specifically, his experiences as an independent game developer. However, I always find his posts extremely well-written (English is not his first language) and brimming with insight into the way of things in general. It’s all the more surprising, considering he was born under the Aries sun sign and they tend be about as smart as a box of hammers.

His post today is titled Games industry Booms and Busts, but you can easily ignore the games part and see that it applies to just about anything business thought leaders and coin-operated market analysts identify as a trend and that companies then try to cash in on. Usually, it starts with a couple unexpectedly positive results, which the so-called thought leaders then point to as “the way of the future” and almost as one, companies flock to see the new, shiny thing. Of course, they call it “strategic shift” or some similar crap, but it boils down to a cynical view of the customer. This is the quest for the ever-elusive repeatable success.

In a previous post, my friend observed that the truly great game companies — the ones whose titles captured the imaginations of gamers worldwide, whose enduring legacy was more than a balance sheet — are the ones lead by people who are passionate about games. Not by MBAs who talk bullshit like “value add” and “strategic goal re-alignment”. Now, don’t get me wrong. I got nothing against MBAs. Some of my best friends know people who are MBAs. But I think their value is in their understanding of business entities, how they are organized and how they behave. The problems start when we look to them as prognosticators, as if they understand the market and are therefore best suited to guide the organization to success. On the contrary, the people at the top of the organization need to actually care first and foremost about the product — not the bottom line — and they would care about it whether they were in that job or not. (Hopefully, they’ll have the presence of mind to keep a few of those MBAs around without turning the reins over to them.)

Anyway, if you can get past the fact that his blog is on Tumblr and his theme looks even worse than mine, please go check it out. Time well wasted!