January 27, 2016

How to Build Something from Nothing

Trying to explain my day job to the American Geographical Society at Geo2050. November 2015.
Everyday I have to give someone a 15 second summary of what I do for a living.  I often have to say it about 3 or 4 times a day, and depending on who I am talking to, the language shifts a little. Also, every year this task gets more difficult because its isn't always clear if I should describe what I've done, what I am doing now, or what I would like to do in the near future. 

These days it comes out something like "I specialize in designing technologies and processes that shift deeply entrenched problems" and then a rambling line with "...  cities...wars... robots... digital ethnography... machine learning... geospatial technology." 

This is clearly a terrible introduction.

In general terms, I solve really hard problems for others, but it is hard to explain everything in 7 seconds because while the problems are constant, their workings change, and in response my skills change at a rapid pace.  In 2010 I was entirely focussed on postwar reconstruction. A year ago I founded a fast-growing technology company that mobilizes breakthroughs in robotics for processing unstructured data.  Today I work with the White House Innovation Fellows as an innovation specialist, ripping through complex public problems from veterans services to cybersecurity with big transformative leaps.

So rather than stumble through a lackluster introduction on skills, these days I tend to summarize all of my work with a single line.

"I specialize in the ability to build something from nothing."


This is not mere urban planning, management, or entrepreneurship. It is a specific skill to create complex entities that thrive from zero or near-zero resources.  More importantly, the things I build do not require my ongoing participation to continue and flourish.  Initiatives I created years ago still exist in far away places, overseen and operated by people who have never heard of me.  Of course doing this isn't easy. Its a carefully considered and honed expertise founded on some core concepts.
  • No Ego. Any given person cannot be central or necessary to the operation of the entity or its continuation.  If you design an entity according to the objectives, emotions, and expectations of one or two people - including yourself- then it will fail to succeed over time because it will forever be limited by the constraints that you alone carry or will carry. You can be a stakeholder in your own work but it should not be about or for you. It should not be designed to serve you (especially if this is to be a profitable business). For successful startups, this is often phrased in an epic mission statement... but it doesn't have to be so bold. It simply must serve others more than it serves yourself.  If it cannot be justified as such, then it is not likely a worthwhile pursuit.
  • Build Psychological Scaffolding. The components of the entity exist as a suspension - not a mixture -so that the tensions are just as critical to the success as the harmonies.  For example, if building a business, you cannot expect everyone to get along, so your odds of success improve if the business is designed to leverage hostilities between people. You cannot expect to like all your employees. You cannot expect to always be pleased by performance or to hire excellent people. So what is the plan?  You can rotate through a constant stream of people, but nothing will grow from this except your own frustration. To build something, you must expect have a range of personalities and capabilities, and many will conflict so build for that conflict, not to avoid it.  Certainly there are times you need to ditch people, but typically, as long as they are reliable enough to show up, you can design the work in relation to their strengths and ask little of their weaknesses while leveraging the internal conflicts into new opportunities for the organization.
  • Resources are Flux. You cannot plan to rely upon any given resource pools, but must draw from finite resources that shift as distributions, compiled from diverse locations, and all resources have expiration dates. If you design and build an entity to rely upon a specific person, idea, model, or finance strategy, and these variables are orchestrated to come together with the expectation of a particular timing, you might succeed once or twice but then it will fail. Don't bother with that. You are wasting resources.  It is at least a great place to start as people are forever the greatest resource. According to "Lean Startup" you should design your product for a specific person with a specific problem - and I agree - that sensibility must drive the initial design. But people change, and you should expect that user to change as your solution is introduced, so you need to design for change over time, and not just for clients but also for investors, partners, and employees.
  • Embrace Suffering.  Do not build an entity with the intention that "all will come together and it will be great."  Instead, design and build it for the  bad times. Imagine the worst possible scenario - what and who do you want by your side to manage that bad time? .If you created pathways for people to manage projects in different ways, to embrace different communication styles, and to maximize agility then you will be in a better position (see psychological scaffolding). But more importantly, seize the pain - its only temporary when it happens but those are the most important moments.  Ben Horowitz likes to talk about "CEOs in times of war and peace." The times of war - budget cuts, lost contracts, massive layoffs - are profound human experiences and it is those moments that define the future of the organization. Build to suffer.
  • Generative Action-Thoughts Win. Often a new risky idea is proposed and someone (sadly the boss) will shut down these new ideas, usually because they fail to understand one of the above principals. Many people also want to talk about a given idea or possibility for a long period of time.  A better tactic - always - is to support a very small and rapid physical experiment on that idea.  A pencil drawing on a piece of paper, a quick survey on the street, or a couple phone calls will typically pull in new information and ways of thinking about the problem. Physical things and processes change the conversation and stupid ideas become radical insights. Always veer toward physical things - not ideas.
These principals appear abstract but there is a clear underlying thread throughout. Maintain a constant respect for others, do more and think less, and care less about the importance of yourself, your ideas, or your values.  Work for the bigger picture and mobilize the assets that come to you.  Obsessing about the right idea, the right execution, or the right result will only waste time and energy. Ultimately, if you want to build something bigger than yourself then you need to remove yourself from it, and it needs to be tangible. Everyday.