HS2, the attacker’s advantage, and the decision dilemma

October 30, 2013


A debate continues in the UK over building high speed train connections between London and the regions. An old concept in innovation theory may be useful in examining the decision to act

There has been much debate in the UK over the proposed HS2 link. Some years ago, there appeared to be a reasonable political consensus in its favour. The issue is now clouded. Labour is indicating ‘no blank cheque’ if they regain power. There is opposition to HS2 from those opposed to big government or big technological schemes threatening environmental consequences.

No simple vision

A simple vision to share with the public vanishes if it is not presented as having a key factor. Faster journeys was a simple vision but the more complex ‘making travel nice, fast, safe and economically good value for money approach is much trickier to present.

The result is increasingly unconvincing arguments. Economic justification relies on experts commissioned by protagonists. Most large technological projects come with unexpected extra costs. Other costs might be anticipated but are covered up by those with a position to advocate. Benefits, the other side of the decision dilemma, remain too loosely coupled with costs.

The attacker’s advantage

Pondering on these matters, I recall a simplification offered in innovation theory by a McKinsey consultant Richard Foster. In his book The Attacker’s Advantage [still in print] he presents the change as a shift from one s-curve to another. Using rather simple economic assumptions, it is possible to identify a region over time in which the economic advantages of shifting is compelling. Sometimes there is no such region or window of opportunity.

The attacker’s advantage always struck me as more of a useful conceptual map or thinking tool than a decision-making algorithm. It is better at isolating a more ‘either-or’ decision between two competing technologies. Between, for example, costs to the tax payer and costs to the traveller. Who pays through taxes is a political decision; who pays in travel fares is a commercial one.

Where do I stand?

I stand for a more informed, more disinterested debate. The current efforts of politicians leave me suspicious of there ever being a simple resolution of the decision. It seems more clear that ‘doing nothing’ is accumulating the problems building up within the transport connections between the wealthy commercial South of England and what is crudely classed as ‘The North’ . In this case, the North w includes Watford (gateway to the North), Birmingham (North of Watford), Manchester and Leeds (North West and North East of Birmingham) and Glasgow (very North indeed, no country for soft old southerners, which may have border guards, by the time HS2 is built).

As I mull these arguments over, I reach a few not very startling conclusions. HS2 will not be built without overcoming strenuous opposition. If it is built at all, it will result in unforeseen advantages and disadvantages. And the longer it takes to decide, the narrower will be the ‘window of opportunity’ for an attacker’s advantage.


Trust Me I’m a Doctor reminds me of Tomorrow’s World

October 28, 2013

A new BBC series promises to debunk popular medical myths. Its approach reminds me of an earlier popular science approach, Tomorrow’s World

Another of the series, Trust Me I’m a Doctor [TMID] had its showing this week [October 24th 2014].

TMID is presented as helping the lay person to gain insights into medical advances. Tomorrow’s world [1965 -2003] attempted to do a similar educational service for scientific and technological discoveries.

There is much to admire in the intentions of the original scientific programme, and in this new ‘medicine for the masses’ effort. I had some serious concerns about the original, with its remorseless enthusiasm for the new and quirky. I have rather similar concerns over TMID.

The worship of the wow

Tomorrow’s World sought to popularize by bringing out the wow factor in scientific discoveries. TMIF has that familiar worship of the wow on medical matters. The slight hint of irony in the title may be significant.

The approach of TMID

The approach of TMID is to challenge conventional wisdom to reveal another hidden possibility. The BBC blurb put is like this

Going behind the headlines to give you the definitive answers to your health questions. Can you be fat and fit? Could you improve your health by staying in bed longer? Should we all be taking an Aspirin pill to help us live longer? Michael Mosley is joined by a team of doctors who use their expertise to get to the bottom all those health claims.

My concern with the approach

My concern with the approach is that it is too easy to start with a loosely framed generalization and arrive at a conclusion which itself is as dodgy as the conventional wisdom it challenges, backed up with ‘clinical evidence’. The definitive answers are not as definitive as might be hoped for. In the episode, the framing went as follows:

One is made of fruit. The other is caffeinated. So a smoothie is a healthier option than a coffee, right? Don’t be so sure, says Michael Mosley, as he weighs the evidence.
Which is healthier – coffee or smoothies? It seems obvious that the answer must be a smoothie. After all, drinking coffee is a necessary evil, while having a smoothie, made from fruit, is part of your five-a-day. But when you look into the scientific studies they reveal something much more surprising.

The dangers of the either-or

I suggest that something conceptually dodgy is going on when a complex issue is reduced to an either-or. Despite the ‘evidence’ from clinical trials, I was left unconvinced. If the original question is “what is healthier for me, as an individual, drinking coffee or smoothies?” I find no satisfactory answer. The clinical trials provided statistical evidence of factors associated with medical benefits and disbenefits [if that’s the right word] of smoothies and of coffees. I won’t be watching the unfolding series.

Is TMID good for your understanding of up-to-date medical knowledge?

Now there’s an interesting question… we are asking two doctors whom we trust to comment for a future post.


Developing global leaders

October 25, 2013

Leaders We Deserve subscribers are invited to view and use a presentation on Developing Global Leaders, which is trending at the moment on slideshare

The presentation by LWD founder and editor Tudor Rickards suggests that Global Leadership is increasingly concerned with dealing creatively with complex business dilemmas. The presentation was produced to accompany the textbook Dilemmas of Leadership.


Service leadership: Is altruism self-interest in disguise?

October 24, 2013

Theories of ethical leadership need to account for acts of self-interest. Evolutionary psychology has an equation explaining altruism in Darwinian terms

The theory has relevance in the UK, as the Government attempts to encourage more widespread acts of service leadership in tough economic times. It presents a dilemma to economists who have trouble fitting altruism into approaches which rely on equations to test hypotheses grounded in assumptions of rational human behaviours in decision-making.

If altruism has its existence outside the dominant rational model, less traditional ‘maps’ of leadership will gain in credibility. A pithy question posed by a BBC correspondent recently reaches the heart of the debate: Is altruism self-interest in disguise?

The article outlined the altruism equation conceived by George Price, an American evolutionary biologist whose work was taken up when he relocated to University College London in the late 1960s. I summarize the BBC piece below:

George Price’s equation addressed a problem that has vexed scientists since Charles Darwin published On The Origin of Species more than a century earlier. If we are selfish creatures, engaged in a battle for survival, why do we display altruism? Why do we show kindness to others even at a cost to ourselves?

Price’s equation explained how altruism could thrive, even amongst groups of selfish people. It built on the work of a number of other scientists, arguably beginning with JBS Haldane, a British biologist who developed a theory in the early 1950s. When asked if he would sacrifice his own life to save that of another, he said that he would, but only under certain conditions. “I would lay down my life for two brothers, or eight cousins.” Haldane’s reasoning was a simplistic explanation of a theory that has come to dominate evolutionary biology – that of “kin selection”. Since he would share 50% of each brother’s genetic makeup, and 12.5% of each cousin’s, his genes would survive even if he were to die.

In the 1960s another scientist, William Donald Hamilton, popularised the theory. He wrote a simple equation to explain that an organism would demonstrate self-sacrificing behaviour if it would enhance the reproductive chances of those it was closely related to.

Price arrived in London with no background in the field of evolutionary biology. Working in seclusion, he rewrote the Hamilton equation in a simpler but more wide-reaching way. It explained the relationship between different generations of a population, and could be used to show how the prevalence of particular traits would change over time.

Although it was a fairly simple statement, it had never been expressed in clear mathematical terms, and the staff at the University College London recognised his insight as wildly original.

A debate about the scientific roots of altruism still rages to this day, but kin selection remains a hugely influential theory, and Price’s contribution is held in high regard by many.

“It underpins a lot of modern evolutionary biology research,” says Andy Gardner, an evolutionary biologist at Oxford University, who uses the Price Equation in much of his work. Oren Harman, who wrote Price’s biography in 2010, says the view is shared by plenty of people in the field.

Samir Okasha, professor of the philosophy of science at Bristol University, thinks not. “The idea [that evolutionary theory shows that altruism is self-interest in disguise] is, to my mind, a questionable thing to say. Behaviour in some animal species is indeed genetically determined, but with humans he argues culture sets us apart from animals in that respect, and points to the huge variance in social norms in different countries, and over short periods of time.

Beyond kinship

The debate is rooted in the dominant rational model of human behaviour. Price’s equation suggests that decisions may be assessed for their rationality according to the calculus of genetic benefits resulting from them. It is a map predicting that humans act in the interests of the gene pool so that selfless acts may actually be rational and therefore not so selfless. It argues that self-interest is served by so-called altruistic actions.

Rational tyranny?

Research into socio-biology is becoming important. The ‘map’ of altruism is not easily dismissed. Neither are the maps drawing on moral philosophy and religious belief systems. A thought struck me. Social Darwinists believed in the ‘natural order of things’, including the instinct found among species to destroy the offspring carrying competitive genes. Perhaps there should be an equation on the rationality of what in humans is seen as tyrannical survival tactics?


Not Very Smart Phones: Why George and Ira Gershwin would have foreseen the touch screen

October 22, 2013

George and Ira Gershwin would have foreseen the touch screen, argues LWD blogger William Thompson. They knew the dangers of mocking pioneers for their new ideas

‘They all laughed at Christopher Columbus
When he said the world was round
They all laughed when Edison recorded sound
They all laughed at Wilbur and his brother
When they said that man could fly
They told Marconi
Wireless was a phony…’

How long it is since every up and coming business executive could not be seen without their BlackBerry in hand, with that iconic QWERTY keyboard at the ready to make those all-important calls?
The Canadian-based company that cut 4500 jobs to counter losses has now been bought for £3 billion by a consortium led by Fairfax Financial. The parent company RIM did not see the touch-screen coming. Their CEO Thorsten Heins had made his presentation in Florida to launch new touch screen lifesaving models, but the smart phone community are not convinced, saying the company is too late.
In 2007 they laughed at Apple’s iPhone, asking the question who would pay $500 for a phone without a keyboard? The answer came back – everyone.

Nokia

Nokia, the one-time brand leader in the smart phone business was bought by Microsoft [September 2013] for 5.44 billion euros. Nokia employs over 100,000 people in 120 countries, so the fortunes of Nokia matter to many people. The Nokia operating system Symbian was allowed to become obsolete and outdated compared to Apple’s IOS 6 and now 7 and Google’s Android operating system. Nokia’s place in the smart phone market slumped as the company lost 40% of their share of the market in just over 12 months.

Apple

Steve Jobs resigned in 2011 as CEO of Apple after a period of serious illness. He handed over to Tim Cook. Sadly Jobs later died. As he left the company, iPhone 4 was their top phone; it has now been discontinued. A year is a long time in the smart phone business.

Apple launched their new operating system IOS 7 stating that it was their most secure system to date, yet within twenty four hours it was discovered that their lock screen pin code could be easily by passed. They were forced to issue IOS 7.2 to correct this security issue. Apple sold nine million of its new iPhone models in three days.

Smart Phone CEOs

The CEOs of the smart phone companies are high profile international figures. Steve Jobs’ keynote presentations were viewed worldwide: he was the messiah of the smart phone world community. Anonymous leaders they are not. Most of all they need to be seen as leaders who can see the ship heading for the rocks and make a change of course before collision. They need to see the touch-screen coming and the keyboard going, an operating system dying and another bursting into life, to see the rocks before the collision, to make life and death decisions at the right time in the product life cycle. They need to be chess players who can see three moves ahead.

Editor’s note:

William Thompson writes with insight about the leadership challenges in so-called high velocity environments. Leadership students may wish to ‘road test’ his suggestions, looking for difficulties in “seeing the rocks, and acting decisively”.

See also our earlier blog on GeekSpeak at Blackberry


US Default resolution: “Far less than many had hoped for, far better than some had thought”

October 18, 2013


The inevitable painful resolution of the US Default self-induced crisis was summed up memorably by senior Republican Mitch McConnell

I found his words worth more than many of the news stories, blogs, and comments that followed the settlement. I found them in The Daily telegraph report:

Mitch McConnell, the top Republican in the Senate who has been forced to contend with ‘no compromise’ Tea Party members of his own ranks, led by the freshman Texas senator Ted Cruz, was much more downbeat.
“This is far less than many of us had hoped for, frankly, but it is far better than what some had sought,” he said, “Now it’s time for Republicans to unite behind other crucial goals.”


The Power of Stories: Success of the TOMS Company and the cult of Conscious Consumerism

October 17, 2013

Vikram Madineni

Blake Mycoskie, founder of TOMS, has redefined social consumerism. His organization can claim to have helped 150,000 people to have had their sight restored, and donated ten million pairs of shoes around the world

According to Ty Montague, Los Angeles social entrepreneur Mykoskie has been engaged in not just story telling but in story doing. TOMS is referred to as a “storydoing” company owing its success partly to what has been described as conscious consumers, who want to be involved in giving back to the society.

Often companies spend huge amounts of money in advertising to create brand awareness and recognition but storydoing companies rely on their consumers and employees to be their advertisers. Montague coined the word “Metastory”, a story told with action. He says that consumers are the biggest storytellers and company should strive to connect with a Metastory.

One for one shoes

Blake Mycoskie started TOMS in 2006 with a powerful story, support children in need, and with a radically different business model – “One-for-One”. Mycoskie’s model is based on a simple concept – sell a pair of shoes today and give a pair of shoes tomorrow. Mycoskie says that people who support TOMS are more than customers, they’re supporters. Mycoskie attibutes the company’s meteoric rise to supporters’ belief in his story and their passion to be part of it.

One for one eye products

TOMS extended their business model in 2011 to eyewear and helps to restore eyesight in the new one-for-one program for each pair of eyewear sold. Mycoskie believes in the new age of conscious capitalism – businesses in addition to making money want to connect with supporters and make an impact in the world together.

FEED Projects, a company with commitment to feed the poor, is another great example with a similar business model to TOMS. Lauren Bush started FEED Projects in 2007 with a promise to feed 1 child for a year for each bag sold. FEED Projects and the foundation have donated more than 60 million school meals to children around the world.

Businesses that had not incorporated “giving back” in their strategy model joined the new age movement and embraced social responsibility. Chu refers to several such companies:

Figs Scrubs (donates a set of scrubs to health professionals in need for every set of scrubs sold), Two Degrees (donates a natural health bar to a hungry child for every one sold), One world Futbol (donates a soccer ball to disadvantaged communities for every soccer ball sold), Bobs By Skechers (donates a pair of shoes for every pair sold).
Businesses have realized that given a choice between two brands, consumers tend to support and want associate with the one that is committed to a social cause. Recent studies also revealed that businesses tend to retain or attract talented employees based on their commitment toward social responsibility.

Are such social businesses making a difference?

It’s a challenge for the businesses to build the trust and loyalty among customers. How can they narrate a powerful story? Does every story connect with the customers? Do the companies truly believe in servant leadership? TOM’s shoes model has been questioned – does it really address the root cause of poverty?

There’s growing evidence that conscious capitalist organizations can thrive and succeed. Consumers. It could be said that their supporters are in lookout for the transformational leaders. Leaders have a challenge not only build their trust, but also overcome ethical dilemmas.

Vikram Madineni is a Senior Electronics Engineer, Ingersoll Rand.