In 1945, Vannevar Bush, the man that led the nation’s scientific efforts during World War II, delivered a proposal to President Truman for funding scientific research in the post-war world. Titled Science, The Endless Frontier, it led to the formation of the NSF, NIH, DARPA and other agencies.
The payoff has been nothing short of astounding. The NSF has funded innovations such as barcode scanners and next generation materials. NIH backed the Human Genome Project as well as research that has led to many of our most important cures. DARPA, invented the Internet.
It’s an impressive record, but the future doesn’t look nearly as bright. Part of the problem is funding, which has fallen off in recent years. Yet the practice of science also needs to be updated. Much has changed in the 70 years since 1945. In order to honor Bush’s legacy—and maintain our technological leadership—we need to adapt it to modern times.
Mark Zuckerberg’s first selection for his book club, Moises Naím’s The End of Power, was an apt one. The book, as the Facebook CEO put it, “explores how the world is shifting to give individual people more power that was traditionally only held by large governments, militaries and other organizations.”
That would also be a pretty good description of Facebook. We’ve seen social media tip the scales in everything from US political campaigns to revolutions that upended powerful dictatorships, like the Arab Spring and Euromaidan. So, in that sense, the choice might seem self serving.
But, the title is a misnomer. Naím does not argue that power has ceased to exist or even that individuals necessarily have more of it. His central point, which he repeats several times throughout the book, is that “power is easier to gain, but harder to use or keep.” That’s a different matter altogether and it points not to the end of power, but a change in its nature.
I first became a manager in my 20’s and, back then, I probably wasn’t a very good one. Nothing really prepares you to lead other people. There is, of course, no shortage of advice out there, but most of it is more myth and lore than anything else and not very helpful.
Henry Mintzberg wrote, “The great myth is the manager as orchestra conductor. It’s this idea of standing on a pedestal and you wave your baton and accounting comes in, and you wave it somewhere else and marketing chimes in with accounting, and they all sound very glorious.”
“But,” he continues, “management is more like orchestra conducting during rehearsals, when everything is going wrong.” In many ways, being a manager is the art of figuring out all the stuff that nobody ever told you. Your job is to solve problems that no one else can and there are no hard and fast rules for that, but here are 6 things that I wish I had known starting out:
Usually tales of great discovery begin with a flash of inspiration, like when Watson and Crick first imagined a double helix and then quickly realized that they had discovered the structure of DNA; or an accident, like when Alexander Fleming contaminated his bacteria culture and stumbled onto penicillin.
Yet those stories, while not apocryphal, are misleading. Watson and Crick had tried many possibilities before hitting on the double helix. As a soldier in World War I, Fleming was horrified by how many soldiers died of sepsis. He had been actively researching bacteria for years before he got lucky.
Inevitably, people who make great discoveries are looking for them. It’s just that they often happen to find them where they weren’t expected. Really hard problems don’t often succumb to linear solutions, but wait unnoticed off the beaten path. That’s why true breakthroughs are not found deep inside one field or another, but somewhere in the space in between.
Revolutions in commerce used to be few and far between. James Watt’s steam engine, developed in 1781, set the stage for the first industrial revolution. But it wasn’t until a century later that the widespread adoption of electricity and the internal combustion engine brought about the second industrial revolution.
The information age didn’t really get going until the 1970’s and that’s led to what to what many are now calling the new industrial revolution, which incorporates computer aided design and advanced fabrication techniques like 3D printing. However, the next revolution, in energy, is already underway.
While the drop in price for fossil fuels has grabbed most of the headlines lately, Citibank predicts that the shale boom will merely serve as a bridge to get us to a new era of renewable energy. This revolution, if anything, will be more far reaching than the others. While the earlier revolutions empowered large enterprises, this one might very well undo them.
When I was a student, a man came to speak about Winston Churchill. Mostly, it was the usual mix of historical events and anecdotes, which in Churchill’s case was a potent mixture of the poignant, the irreverent and the hilarious. But what I remember most was how the talk ended.
The speaker concluded by saying that if we were to remember one thing about Churchill it should be that what made him so effective was his power to communicate. I didn’t understand that at the time. Growing up I had always heard about the importance of hard work, honesty and other things, but never communication.
Yet now, thirty years later, I’ve begun to understand what he meant. As Walter Isaacson argues in his book The Innovators, even in technology—maybe especially in technology—the ability to collaborate effectively is decisive. In order to innovate, it’s not enough to just come up with big ideas, you also need to work hard to communicate them clearly.
Peter Thiel loves secrets. In his book, Zero to One, he makes a fervent case that unless you firmly believe that there are still things to discover, you will never achieve much. The most you will be able to accomplish is a small tweak on conventional wisdom and that’s no way to create value.
He also points out that everything we now think of as foundational was once a secret. Schoolchildren today learn Euclidean geometry, but at one time it was new and different. When Google first discovered the search engine secret, Yahoo didn’t think it was buying.
The problem is that it’s hard to tell a secret—something true but still unknown—from a unicorn, something that people believe which doesn’t really exist. Intuition is a double-edged sword, it can alert us to facts that are not in evidence, but it can also lead us to chase things that aren’t really there. The trick is to be able to kill the unicorns and find real secrets.
When Henry Ford started his company in 1903, he did more than just create a car or an assembly line (neither of which he actually invented). What he did was establish an entirely new form of organization, culminating in the vertically integrated River Rouge complex that was completed in 1928.
By mid century, nearly every facet of life was transformed. We moved out to the suburbs, built gas stations and shopping malls, massed produced and mass marketed. Enormous enterprises arose that built large bureaucracies to control it all and make it run efficiently.
Yet today’s digital economy is fundamentally different. Rather than assets managed by centralized organizations, we have ecosystems managed by platforms. Capabilities are no longer determined by what you own or control, but what you can access. Therefore, we need to think less about how we build efficiencies and more about how we build connections.
There’s no doubt Tim Cook has a very tough job. When he stepped in as CEO of Apple he was following in the footsteps of one of the most—if not the most—iconic entrepreneurs in history. Every step would be scrutinized by a legion of die hard fans and magnified a thousandfold.
Yet Cook has performed admirably. The stock has more than doubled since he took over in August 2011 and Apple just posted the best quarter for any company ever. Despite aggressive share buybacks, the company is still sitting on a mountain of cash—more than $170 billion!
Tim Cook is no Steve Jobs and that may actually be a good thing. Unlike the bombastic Apple founder, he’s been even-keeled, launching no vendettas and creating no controversies. Although there has been a lack of blockbuster launches, the company is an operational wunderkind. Here’s how Cook is doing things differently than his famous predecessor.
In the go-go eighties, “Chainsaw” Al Dunlap’s enthusiasm for aggressive cost cutting and massive layoffs made him a corporate superhero. His subsequent indictment and conviction on fraud charges led business people to question his character, but not necessarily his methods.
Poor Al would never survive as a CEO today. Social media would eat him for breakfast. Today’s corporate executives need to mind their P’s and Q’s, because any stray word can instantly go viral, damage the stock price and diminish shareholder value.
These days, most corporate executives pay lip service to the idea that people come first, but beyond nice sounding platitudes, relatively little has changed. Boardroom discussions mostly focus on financial data and the need to be “practical” about people decisions Yet smart firms value their people not out of altruism or fear of a backlash, but because it’s good business.