On the last week of August 2005, the president of Facebook was arrested for felony possession of cocaine. This arrest was used as an excuse to push him out of the company by investors concerned about his influence with founder Zuckerberg. On the afternoon of 22 September 2011, the same Sean Parker will stand alongside the same Mark Zuckerberg to announce changes that may transform the music industry.
The radical returned triumphant although, in truth, he had never really left. He was one of the key reasons for the relentless, restless adaptation that has characterised Facebook. Sean Parker never settles for safe. He never accepts traditional obvious. He distrusted the judgement of early investors. He poked and prodded to keep the company independent. And he outlasted the venture capitalists that pushed him out.
There is a conflict between the forces of chaos and order in human life, but it is not always as the battle is portrayed. In the life of organizations, it is about preference as much as it is about professionalism. There is nothing innately superior about the effectiveness of a tidy desk compared to a messy desk, or to the efficiency of efficiency to getting you to a better place compared to curiosity fuelled discovery.
In the life of human groups, the concepts of realism can be used as a strategy of political control rather than as an objectively better way of adapting for a better future. It can also be as much about a struggle between people who find uncertainty uncomfortable and those who find certainty unrewarding.
Fear mongering about disorganization can lead to excessive levels of organization that scare away the creative, rebellious behaviour necessary to joyous renewal. If there are sufficient resources, it will work for a time. Until the next technology trend, climate change or social wave exposes traditional approaches as unplanned obsolescence.
Innovators bet on ideas, while entrepreneurs bet on choices. Managers tend play it safe with predictable promotions, while senior leaders can be tempted by the safety of size either of their organization or their pension pot. They depend on what appears safe. They wish to take advantage of what they can see if life continues as expected. Entrepreneurs and innovators seek the satisfaction of seeing their actions change and shape the future in new ways. They are effectual thinkers.
When times are easy, almost anyone can look effective. The game may become one of the superficial effectiveness which the truly effective cannot win. When choices seem obvious, unimaginative leaders may be rewarded for making the obvious choices even when they know they’re the wrong choices. And if they are able to move on, retire, or die before the consequences of those decisions are known, then bad choices worked.
In 2007, Starbucks was in trouble. It was in so much trouble that the chairman and founder, Howard Schultz, wrote to the CEO, Jim Donald, to warn that the in-store experience was being watered down with a hugely damaging impact on the success of the overall business. It was in so much trouble that the founder of the company came back to be chief executive again. Starbucks was in so much trouble that it had to close 977 stores and lay off 1000 people in the USA. Customer numbers had reduced for the first time since going public. With profits falling, the share price fell by more than 50%, as investor fear spread about the market in general and Starbucks in particular.
Jim Donald, the new CEO of Starbucks, was handpicked by his predecessor, and this was part of the problem. Instead of adapting to circumstances, the new CEO unthinkingly accelerated actions. There was little room in his decision making process for nuance. He saw an unbroken pattern of opening new stores and so opened even more. He had spent his time prior to becoming CEO opening stores in the USA so he opened almost all his new stores within the 51 states. There were 900 more stores planned in the USA the year he was forced out of the company. The year Schultz closed 977 stores.
On the day that Jim Donald was appointed, he said nothing about the Starbucks experience. Not one thing. He spoke of being honoured to succeed Orin. He spoke about his optimism for the opportunities ahead. He said the opportunities were virtually endless. He said how proud he was to be part of the world class management team. But not one word about the people he would be working with or their contribution to the world. Not one word about the world outside of the USA. Nothing was said about doing anything incredible or worthwhile or different. He could not have been more inward.
Superficial actions may look almost identical to deep decisions but they are not. They lack the understanding, the intelligence that led to the decision. Actions are relative to circumstance. Opening a store isn’t right or wrong. It depends. Increasing efficiency for customers isn’t right or wrong. It depends how it is done and when. The problem for the non-radical is that they are driven by everything but the thing itself. Jim Donald wanted be seen to be successful, and deliver record financial performance. Schultz wanted to create a third place, an authentic, coffee loving experience.
Orin had a deeper understanding of the mind of his radical mentor. As he made decisions, his mind had learned habits, and considerations that kept closer to the ideal. To hear him speak about Starbucks is to hear him in conversation with Schultz. If he mentions efficiency, the voice of Schultz prompts him to underline authenticity. Jim Donald had no Schultz voice in his head warning him to make room for beauty and risk. Instead he had a Smith voice speaking about efficiencies of scale and investment ratios.
When the slowdown really kicked in, Schultz found his own voice again. He saw that the romance and theatre had been lost. He wrote a famous memo that was leaked to the media, chronicling the series of decisions made over the past decade that had stripped the company of the soul of the past. He was stung by criticisms that stores were sterile, cookie cutter, and devoid of passion. This was about far more than making money.
On the afternoon of 26 February 2008, Starbucks closed all 7,100 stores in the USA. A sign on the window of each one read: GREAT ESPRESSO REQUIRES PRACTICE. THAT’S WHY WE’RE DEDICATING OURSELVES TO HONING OUR CRAFT. All 135,000 baristas were retrained on pouring the perfect shot of coffee. They were taught to grind coffee again, instead of relying on automated machines and pre-ground, vacuum packs. In response to a taste test that found McDonald’s coffee was better, they experimented with a new roasting process to create a signature blend. He didn’t have to weigh profit margin and key management ratios; he just had to deliver what customers loved.
By 2010, Starbucks had recovered. Record revenue of $10.7 billion reflected in stock price increases from $8 to $30. With the radical brain back at the top, so were they.
Radicals can influence the rest of the group under certain circumstances. This influence takes different forms. There are charming radicals who utilise charisma to take people with them. There are also prove-the-world-wrong radicals who attempt the unconventional, absurd or even dangerous so that they can provide evidence that they are right about something that matters to them, intellectually or otherwise.
This influence matters to the adaptability of the group. It’s part of the adaptation mechanism because it allows unconventional views about each step. The group is in most danger when circumstances change beyond its recent experience. People don’t know what to do that will be successful. They even may be unaware of the need to adapt. Radicals help by insisting upon alternatives and obsessively proving they work.
Robert Lanza altered the genetic code of chickens in his parent’s basement when he was 14 years old. Not only was his age remarkable, he was transferring genes from black chickens to white chickens only three years after the genetic code had been deciphered. This was 1969, and while the rest of the country was obsessing about the first lunar landing and kids his age were running around with toy ray guns, he was playing god.
Proud of his achievements, Lanza turned up on the steps of Harvard Medical School with his chickens, or at least the results of his experiments. Professors at the university started to mentor our radical teen and his experiment with the chickens was eventually published in Nature, the world’s preeminent scientific journal.
Robert’s childhood was no Bill Gates III story of privilege and opportunity. His family background, from Roxbury a tough area of Boston, meant that teachers labelled him as slow. They put him in the bottom of the three ability groups in school. Each school day he spent with kids who were failing. Each day after school he roamed the nearby wilderness rarely allowed to stay inside except to eat and sleep.
He remembers being fascinated by the world. He wanted to understand how his universe worked. His neighbours nurtured him somewhat. If he brought them an insect, they would buy a magnifying glass. If he discovered a bird’s egg, they would get a book on ornithology. He was nurtured by neighbours who lent him their perspective on doing the right thing and fighting for the right thing. This viewpoint became part of him.
By the time he was ten years old, his fifth grade teacher realised he might have talent and got him to enter the science fair. He came second and realised he didn’t have to be restricted by his environment. By eighth grade, his neighbour was his science teacher. She jumped the queue and put him in the high school honours biology class. To prove the doubters wrong, he altered the genetic code of those chickens. He got a C grade.
For two years after graduating from medical school, he did nothing apart from think about how the universe worked. Fresh from his self-imposed sabbatical, he launched into overcoming problems of rejection and tissue shortages in transplanting insulin-producing cells to people with diabetes. His experiments showed that if you surround an organ with the patient’s own cells, there is no rejection. He figured it out a injecting islet cells from a patient’s pancreas into his portal vein after which they lived happily in the man’s liver.
In 1990, he started working for Bill Chick who was dying of diabetes. Bill wanted Robert to save him by making his methods work for insulin. They managed to succeed in making dogs insulin independent. Hearing about Dolly the Sheep, the first cloned mammal accomplished by Roslin Institute in Scotland, he became certain that using cloned stem cells from the sick patient was the answer. Chick wasn’t convinced and died.
Undeterred, he joined a cloning company called Advanced Cell Technologies (ACT). Before his work could begin he had to convince the National Institutes of Health to allow cloning embryo despite the US public being against such work. He received death threats and the condemnation of the Pope but he also received fifty letters from noble laureates and permission to begin his work. Radicals don’t stop, which is the source of progress.
As a result of his work, clinical trials began in California and London began in 2011 based on embryonic stem cells. It is a trial aimed at regenerating retinal cells from people suffering from macular dystrophy. The condition causes the gradual degeneration of central sight so that sufferers are only left with peripheral vision. This particular, hour long procedure will inject a suspension of 50,000 cells into the retina of young patients. They have a genetic disorder, Stargards, which destroys retinal tissue causing blindness.
Hundreds of scientists are developing treatments with human embryonic stem cells, despite legal restrictions and religious objections. Many of them are led by people who simply will not accept the constraints of tradition or the limits of knowledge. They dream of a day when stem cells will be used to replace all defective body parts. They want to understand how far we can adapt our methods of discovery and how far we can adapt our bodies to overcome genetic flaws.
Intellectual flexibility is more important than intelligence quotient when solving what has not been solved before. The obsessive desire to understand and improve shown by Sean Parker, Howard Schultz and Robert Lanza drag thinking and action forward. They can’t help themselves, they radicalise whatever they touch. They get bored of the same-old-same-old even when it’s lucrative. They kick against the pricks of the status quo. They disturb old alliances and poke at wasps nests of convention.
Back in the 1966, when Robert Lanza was still struggling in fifth grade, Professor Liam Hudson of Cambridge was identifying two types of clever schoolboy. He was interested in the creative theories of Getzels and Jackson who proposed in 1960 that a high IQ is not clear indication of high ability. He administered the Getzels-Jackson tests to 95 students and found that they were of two types: convergents and divergents.
Convergents look for one answer to any problem. They rapidly sorted through any wrong answers to determine which one was correct. If they already knew an answer they would use it without consideration or delay. They jumped into the task with enthusiasm interested in finding the predetermined answers to predetermined questions.
Divergents create as many answers to a problem as possible. The game is to generate options and possibilities. They see little interest in repeating what is already known. They cannot easily accept the limitations of a one answer approach to knowledge or life. As a result they find IQ tests boring, do badly at them. They don’t value tests so many of the people who overvalue tests undervalue them. Yet these are our radicals, those who can see new possibilities. And in times of great uncertainty or new challenge, we need them.
He found that 75% of those who were convergents excelled at the physical sciences while 75% of those who were divergents excelled at the arts and social sciences. More of those gifted at creating additional options choose to follow subjects that respect nuance and complexity beyond the one right way. This has significant consequences for adaptability where small and large groups require diverse alternatives to better match effective action to uncertain situations.
Adaptation benefits from a healthy mix of convergent and divergent approaches. Once a solution is found that pretty much works, it requires stability for it to work over and over again. Those who inherit knowledge are able to use it until those who create knowledge replace their legacy. The knowledge creators, the radicals, and the rebels permit adaptation.
(Excerpt from Adaptability by Max Mckeown - Learn more here)