Are you killing opportunities out of fear?

Flickr/Joe Thorn

Seth Godin has a great post up this morning in which he asks whether leaders aren’t stifling opportunities out of fear.  He starts out by asking if we really want to get better, or if we’re too afraid of the effects change might bring.

Better means change and change means risk and risk means fear.
So the organization is filled with people who have been punished when they try to make things better, because the boss is afraid.
-Seth Godin

When you punish the people who are trying to change things for the better you lose them. They might not leave, but they’ll surely disappear in place. Engagement is the latest buzzword, but I don’t think many have realized that “the enemy is us.” The Corporate Immune System blocks change. The ones who might make the organization great are instead relegated to roles of quiet frustration. The long, slow slide towards oblivion continues apace.


And so the patient gets the prescription but doesn’t actually take all the meds.
And the bureaucrat feigns helplessness because it’s easier to shrug than it is to care.
-Seth Godin

I’ve often thought the shruggie (¯_(ツ)_/¯) ought to be the mascot of such managers as they eschew support and at times actively work against change. This cannot stand. If leaders are blocking change they’re not leaders. Help them see the importance and value of change. If they’re unable to do so, they’re likely in the wrong role.

The safe path may seem the less risky one, but it’s one that’s headed straight toward obsolescence. The road less traveled may be fraught with unknown dangers, but it’s the only one that offers growth, learning and opportunities to make meaningful change.

Create room for your people to experiment, or at least get out of the way. Make failure an acceptable part of doing business and help others learn from it. Challenge people to recast your business and support ideas which show promise. Do it now.

Businesses need to evolve to suit the changing circumstances in which they operate. If you’re uncomfortable with that, the dust bin of history will gladly prepare a place for you. Make your choice and report for duty.

Uber, You Can’t Buy a Social License

Like a teenager with a new sports car, Uber has been cruising around town looking for trouble. The “ride sharing” service has kept the expansion pedal to the metal, but they’ve done so with the top down in the midst of a gathering storm.


Let’s review their recent turns.

Banned in France (as well as Spain, Thailand, and prominent cities around the world)?

Claim that the Parisian regulation “isn’t precise enough,” while police actively ticket your drivers.


Journalists are critical of the firm?

Suggest that you might quietly spend up to $1 million to dig up dirt on the writers and their families.


Had a driver accused of raping a passenger in New Delhi, India?

Offer passengers a Panic Button on the Uber app. (Also available in Chicago, Illinois.)


Hackers stole identifying information for 50,000 of your drivers?

Wait five months to share this information before offering effected drivers a year of free identity theft protection.


Things have gotten so bad that Funny or Die has released a video spoofing the firm’s handling of such issues. As Chris Taylor writes, “The company has been coming on like a frat house version of Orwell’s Big Brother… it appears to have absolutely no self-awareness about the fact, and keeps digging itself in deeper trouble.” One could be forgiven for thinking we’re just an epic crash short of an object lesson in hubris.


Then again, there are the financials.


A recent memo from the firm’s CEO claims the firm grew 6x over the prior year, while he and his co-founder landed on Forbes’ billionaire list. So, asking what’s wrong with their approach, when their financial success seems assured, is a reasonable question.

I’d respond by saying that the success of the founders appears safe, but that of the firm (and more pointedly, recent investors) is far from certain. A $1.2 Billion investment of venture capital in December of 2014 raised the firm’s valuation to $40 Billion, but what happens to the valuation if management decisions start pumping the brakes on the firm’s progress?


Uber has had a nice joy ride, but it’s time for their leadership team to consider the potential perils of reputational risk. I thought the CSR Commitment Pyramid, which I based off of an HBR article on the prevailing CSR justifications: license to operate, reputation, sustainability, and moral obligation, might be a useful tool with which to review the firm’s standing in the marketplace.

CSR Commitment Pyramid

A quick overview of the pyramid should help make this clear.

  • Level 1. Social License to Operate: This is society’s permission to operate your business. It’s basically an implied license which a community bestows on businesses, and it’s one which they can revoke at any time. (If you’re selling snake oil, you’ll know you’ve lost your social license when you get run out of town on a rail.)
  • Level 2. Reputation: The collective gain or loss you take for the perception you build with your actions in the market. In essence, are you gaining or losing trust?
  • Level 3. Sustainability: This speaks to the idea of the triple bottom line – the idea of balancing the firm’s economic interests with those of the environment and society. Porter and Kramer suggest that this “works best for issues that coincide with a company’s economic or regulatory interests.”
  • Level 4. Moral Obligation: The top-level refers to doing things in a way which tends toward being collectively accepted by society.

Let’s take a look at Uber’s performance along these lines starting at the top.

  • Level 4. Moral Obligation: Starting at the top of the pyramid, we could say that this is a morally objectionable business as its leadership team has displayed a blatant disregard for cultural norms, as well as for the well-being of their employees. They’ve determined that a Panic Button makes sense in some areas, but they’re not providing it in all markets. Does a market need to have a related problem to have the feature enabled locally? And aren’t they putting themselves at risk of major lawsuits in the areas where it is not available?
  • Level 3. Sustainability: Uber might argue that they’re leading to fewer cars being made due to their service’s ability to substitute for ownership, and fewer miles driven due to lower ownership rates, but what about the economic and regulatory concerns?  Uber is the first sharing economy firm to have to deal with a strike, as drivers contend that the frequent lowering of prices has made it difficult for them to earn a living. And, as previously mentioned, the firm is facing legal challenges in several cities and countries around the world.
  • Level 2. Reputation: I assume we could agree that Uber is trending highly negative here. (Yes, many people still enjoy the service, but the list of issues at the top is setting a troublesome precedent.) The farther they move in that direction, the more likely it is that the business will shortcut its own meteoric rise.
  • Levell 1. Social License to Operate: This is the area which has largely been ignored in recent years, but which I expect to steadily gain in importance. Lack of a community’s support has led to a number of legal challenges. In many cases, the firm is doing something which hadn’t been anticipated by the law. When you’re in that lane, the road ahead is uncertain. You might get pulled over and have your new ride sent to the impound, or you might get a nod and wave as you’re motioned to keep on trucking. In this situation, the way you’re perceived is likely to weigh heavily. If you’re seen as a net contributor to the community, you’re probably a lot more likely to get a free pass than those that viewed as a detriment.


If the social license argument seems a stretch, I’d recommend that you take a look at the recent list of membership defections experienced by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Amazon, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and Wal-mart all jumped off in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s death due to ALEC’s work in support of Stand Your Ground laws. More recently, AOL, Emerson Electric, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Northrop Grumman, Occidental Petroleum, SAP America, Union Pacific, Wells Fargo, Yelp, Yahoo, and BP have all followed suit.

ALEC hasn’t broken any laws in fostering this mass exodus. What they’ve broken is trust. And that’s exactly what a social license is.  In Uber’s case, waking the slumbering regulatory beast, will likely impact others, so the firm may soon find itself becoming a Silicon Valley pariah.


We could flip this argument on its head by looking at the issues in Indiana, where the state’s “religious liberty” bill had business leaders lining up to express their displeasure with the law’s potential for discriminatory actions, while threatening to cut ties with the state.


The days of damn the torpedoes capitalism are over. Being an accepted member of the community (or an acceptable community in which to be a member) matters. That goes double for facilitators of the sharing economy.

Are they charting a new course?

Recent efforts suggest a desire to clean up the firm’s image (if not their act). Uber has partnered with UN Women in looking to hire five million women drivers by the year 2020. This looks admirable on the surface, but the firm doesn’t treat its drivers as employees and thus the only benefits they receive come from negotiated discounts on products and services provided by third parties, so this feels a bit of an empty promise. Saying that you’ll sign up millions of women to drive for the firm is no promise of gainful employment. It’s a vague offer of “work,” and nothing more.

Further, the Uber announcement prompted a quick response from Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the Executive Director of UN Women. Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka’s video statement negated Uber’s claim, but the program announcement remains on the Uber blog.


More recent news seems to offer a bit more promise as Uber has announced that it will purchase taxi licenses for its drivers in Germany. The firm has often brazenly defied government orders in the past, so this could be the u-turn that’s needed, or it may just be the result of a rational cost-benefit calculation. They’ve also just hired away Facebook’s Chief Security Officer, a move I’ll tentatively view as a turn for the better.


It will be interesting to follow Uber’s follow on moves. (I’m sure it’s challenging to stay grounded with a trunk full of gold, but I hope Uber’s leaders are learning from their fender benders.) If it really has been “Douche as a tactic, not a strategy,” it’s time to switch gears. We’re all forced to live in glass houses thanks to the radical transparency afforded by ubiquitous connectivity. As such, it’s best to avoid having things to hide, and to work to ensure that you’re taking care of your employees and customers. Otherwise, they will continue to lose customers to other options. But in filling the firm’s coffers with obscene wealth, the firm’s investors are stating that Uber can do no wrong.


Uber has reached a fork in the road. It’s time they took the one less traveled.



5/19/2015 Update:
Uber is planning to develop self-driving cars, which one estimate suggests would lead to the loss of 10 million jobs.

Help Co-create a Compassionate Business Future via SALT Magazine’s Kickstarter

I write a column for a new publication which is working to create a values-driven business environment. SALT Magazine is carving out a unique space among business publications, eschewing the profit over everything narrative for something more balanced and nuanced. It’s a wonderful space that will help business leaders gain perspective, but it won’t last without support. Enter the Kickstarter campaign for the magazine’s inaugural issue. Continue reading Help Co-create a Compassionate Business Future via SALT Magazine’s Kickstarter

The 6 Stages of Climate Grief


I had an interesting conversation yesterday in which I was challenged over my distaste for Stewart Brand’s recent Aeon Magazine piece on rethinking extinction.  The post opens by stating, “The idea that we are edging up to a mass extinction is not just wrong – it’s a recipe for panic and paralysis.”  I have two problems with this statement.  First, Mr. Brand claims to know what the future holds.  Second, he seems to be claiming that the mere idea of a current mass extinction is too much for the public to bear.
Continue reading The 6 Stages of Climate Grief

The Intrapreneurship Conference: A Path to Subvert the Corporate Immune System?


I  recently attended the 2014 Intrapreneurship Conference, in Eindhoven, Holland.  The conference brought together a unique blend of change makers, some of them consultants who help firms find their way, and many of them either leading entrepreneurial efforts to create new products or services within existing businesses, others working to completely reinvent the businesses they work for.


The two-day event was an intense affair.  While most conferences tend to deal with experts teaching tried-and-true methods, the focus of this group was on creating possibilities, gaining support for ideas, and providing cover against something I think of as the Corporate Immune System (the corporate body’s tendency to resist change).

I think most people understand the need to keep their businesses in a state of constant evolution, but few of us do it well.  There’s good reason for this.  As a business becomes successful, it starts to calcify.  Codified artifacts like rules, policies, and systems, are the obvious part of this, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  The real sclerosis hides in plain sight in the form of an organization’s culture.  The unspoken rules. The shared stories. The accepted “truths.” Once those set in, you’re likely to start hearing tired tropes. “That won’t work here.” “We tried that once.” “It’s a good idea, but…”  When you find yourself running into that wall, you’ll need more than a good idea to effect change.  That’s where intrapreneurs come in.


The list of people who are able to drive meaningful change inside of established organizations is surely storied, but it’s also a list that is not long. That’s why the Intrapreneurship Conference is such a treat. They bring together these rare birds in a highly interactive environment, so you get the opportunity to learn from folks who are succeeding in challenging circumstances, while kicking around new ideas, or maybe refining some of your own. It was a great experience, which I’m looking forward to repeating in the near future. In looking back, the only thing that left me wanting was that I couldn’t possibly connect directly with all the interesting and insightful attendees.

If you’re responsible for driving a firm’s internal change (or you’re ready to step up to that mantle on your own), I’d highly recommend attending one of the 2015 events.  They’ll be holding a spring conference in Europe (Held in London this May), and their first U.S. event will be held this fall (site TBD).  I’ll be tracking both events, so stay tuned for further info on them, and I intend to go to at least one of them. Let’s be sure to connect if you make it there.

Are We Entering The Bullwhip Curve?

The Economist took on a recent Oxfam publication which predicts that the 1% will own half of the world’s wealth by 2016.  (The chart on the left below shows the Oxfam forecast.)  The article in The Economist admonishes the Oxfam pub for their choice of dates (2010-2014) in projecting the trend, stating that starting instead in the year 2000 would push the milestone out to 2035. (Some solace.)

Income is a better measure to worry about, says The Economist piece, and as data from Branko Milanovic shows (chart on the right below), the global middle class has made great strides in recent decades.


It’s hard to argue against the movement of millions out of poverty, but I wonder if the gains are ephemeral.

When I first saw Mr. Milanovic’s graph, I called it the “Elephant Curve” — the large hump to the left and the upturned trunk to the right.  I’ve since thought a bit about how this curve might change in the future.  If current trends continue, I suspect we’ll see something akin to the backside of the Kuznet’s Curve wherein the fortunes of the global middle will slowly reverse. If that occurs, rather than an elephant, the curve might resemble a bullwhip as the global middle class watched their gains stall.  This “wave” might then continue on down the income distribution.

I assume some event(s) would eventually break the cycle, but I can’t see how it would happen without a demand, as enlightened self-interest seems a thing which demands a swift kick in the rear to get it going.

Yet another gloomy prognostication in which I fully hope I’m wrong. (There’s a reason they call it the dismal science.)
We shall see.

Update (2015/1/24): Branko Milanovic has written a response to the pieces referenced in this post
Branko Milanovic: Repeat after me: Wealth is not income and income is not consumption

Oxfam: Richest 1% will own more than all the rest by 2016
The Economist: Oxfam Causes a Stir

Masdar 2015: The Sustainably Complexing City

I had a lot of fun writing my entry for last year’s Masdar Engage Blogging Contest, so I when I got the call, I was happy to throw my hat in the ring again.  This year they’re asking us to look into our crystal ball and forecast what the sustainable city of the future might look like.

The assignment:

Describe your city in 2030: what will occur due to changes in energy, transportation and water technologies, and how will they transform how you live?

Flickr/EOI Escuela de Organización Industrial
Flickr/EOI Escuela de Organización Industrial

The Sustainably Complexing Cities of 2030

I recently visited Holland for a conference on Intrapreneurship.  I scheduled a couple of days to take in Amsterdam at the start of the trip, and I spent that time walking the city, observing the culture and the ways in which people interacted.

I had heard a lot about Dutch bicycle culture, but I was unprepared for the experience.  Bicycles are everywhere. Most racks overflow with them. Sidewalks are filled with orderly rows.

Cyclists are ever zooming by.  They have their own lanes in most of the areas I visited, and where they share space with vehicles, motorists are abundantly cautious.  I inquired about this and learned that Dutch laws favor cyclists, which helps keep the roads safe for all.  Pedestrians also tend to have their own walkways, or at least a clearly marked portion of the wide paths which they share with bikes.

Sitting back to watch life complex on itself in heavily trafficked intersections is truly a marvel. Pedestrians enter. Cars slow to a stop. Bikes zing past. Street cars pull up, add and subtract passengers, and move on.

It felt a bit like watching a model of a heart alternately pumping blood into so many intricately linked blood vessels. Except these weren’t vessels, but only the suggestion of such. So the people who flow through are not blood which is forced to behave in any certain way, but autonomous actors who independently choose to make the system work. If one should choose to behave counter to the system, the results could be catastrophic.

This is the lens through which I view the city of the future. We already have the technology we need to transition to sustainable cities. What we lack thus far is the collective will, the resolve, necessary to act purposefully.

What we need now is a shift in mindset. We myopically look to loss in terms of less energy leading to less comfortable lives, and fewer material possessions. So we continue down the path of more — with coal plants popping up like mushrooms as we fight over the right to build more pipelines.  The paradigm we need to move to is the one which rapidly “decarbonizes” the atmosphere. Once we’re headed in that direction, we can start to work back towards relative comfort as we devise ever more creative solutions to our human needs.

So we were asked to describe the city of the future, and I haven’t really done that, because I think they’ll all be different.  Each city will complex in unique and interesting ways depending on its circumstances.  The technology and choices necessary to live sustainably in a hot, dry climate will be different from those needed in a cool, wet one.  Culture and access to resources will obviously play a role, as will a multitude of other factors.

Speculating about what specific technologies will be prominent in the future is a fun mental exercise, but I don’t think that divining the specific technologies which will be employed matters that much.  They’ll naturally surface and be adapted once we shift our collective outlook to foster empathy towards all of humanity.  My sustainable city of the future will surely be a glistening city filled with amazing technical achievements, but the real differentiator from today is that it will be inhabited by those who choose to live in a way which acknowledges, and actively supports, the rights of others, including future generations, the opportunity to exist.

Technology is a tool which can be used for ill or benefit.  It is not a cure all which can paper over our collective shortcomings.  Until we agree to use it wisely, no manner of technology will solve our problems.  We are the problem.  Once we realize that, and resolve to change, we’ll figure it out.


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