Neil Tambe

I'm a Detroiter who happens to enjoy writing, national parks, orange juice, the performing arts, and fanciful socks. More than anything though, I aspire to be a good husband, father, and citizen.

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Discomfort With Ambiguity

When I worked as a management consultant, one of the recruiting buzzwords was "ambiguity."

The idea was, consulting firms wanted people who were able to manage ambiguity and were comfortable operating in environments where there was a lot of it.  Dealing with ambiguity was an indispensable skill.

But now, I think I'd rather hire someone (and more importantly, be someone) who's uncomfortable with ambiguity. Someone who encounters ambiguity, and wants to solve the underlying problem causing it. Someone who takes ambiguity, and strives to make it clearer, simpler, and more actionable.

In retrospect, I think it's probably better to have teams that are so annoyed by ambiguity that they try to do something about it.

To be sure, I'm not naive enough to think ambiguity can be completely eliminated from enterprises. What I'm saying is that it might be better to build a team with people who will do something about ambiguity, rather than build a team who people who will have a high tolerance for it.

My take on "How will you measure your life?"

I've been taking a class with Bob Quinn called Transformative Leadership, and I've been reflecting on how I live my life. Here are three observations - two truths and a lie, if you will - that I've been thinking about. Two Truths

Lately, I've been captivated by a question that Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School talks about, "How will you measure your life?"

You should definitely watch Professor Christensen's talk, but this is my take on his question.

In the biggest sense, the largest outcome we impact with our lives is the trajectory of human history. The way I think about this is simple - we can either help humanity move closer toward good (which I think of as God's glory) or we can help it move closer to evil (which I think of as wickedness).

And really, we each have a micro-impact on this very large thing. There are very few people (I'd argue none) on the planet who will ever make an aggregated, measurable impact on the trajectory of human history. That said, I do think that we each influence humanity's trajectory and that impact, however small, does matter in aggregate.

That is this idea's brilliance. By looking at our impact on the trajectory of humanity, something none of us can cause a measurable blip on, we don't have to focus on whether we outperformed somebody else. We are freed from comparing ourselves to others. Rather, we can focus on fully utilizing our own potential. We can put all our efforts into being good people, instead of worrying about being more good than others.

So that's the first truth - the biggest "measurable" in our life is whether we influence the trajectory of humanity toward good or evil. In practice, I ask myself the following question: today, did I move humanity toward good, toward evil, or was it a wash? I try to log more days in the "good" category than the "evil" and "wash" categories.

In any case, that's how I'm starting to measure my life.

But, thinking about measuring your life in terms of the trajectory of humanity is unbelievably impractical on a day-to-day basis. After all, how the heck do you know whether you are inching humanity closer to good or to evil? The short answer is, we can't. There's no way for us to know whether we are spreading good or evil.

Given this practical quandary, I thought about what a good, practical, indicator that is a good proxy for whether I'm influencing humanity toward good or toward evil. After all, if you list out your values, you can look at them every day and reflect on whether you lived them out.

It seems to me that if I choose a strong set of values to live by, and have integrity to them, I feel pretty confident that I'm positively affecting the trajectory of humanity. So more practically, that's what I try to ask myself and practice on a day-to-day basis - whether or not I'm living my values.

To be sure, living my own values is not a trivial matter. It's very hard. In fact, it's probably the single hardest thing to do on a day-to-day basis. But that brings me to the second truth - living your values is the hardest challenge we have every day, but it's also one of the things we have the most control over. As John Steinbeck talks about in East of Eden, we have timshel - we have the choice of conquering our sins (see an excerpt below). We have a choice.

This argument is why I'm starting to think character is the most important thing we can teach. If you do that, I believe, everything else starts falling into place.

A Lie

In this scenario I've created - centered on living our values as the practical proxy of positively influencing the trajectory of humanity, it becomes very disillusioning if you feel like you don't have character or agency. After all, if life comes down to living out your values and you don't feel like you can, then that's the ball game. If you can't live your values, you might as well hide under your bed and give up.

But that brings me to the lie, that we can't change. We can change. We can live our values. We can be less wicked. It's hard, but we can.

Hope (or lack of) is a powerful narrative. If you have hope you can change, and therefore become more good than wicked, and therefore positively impact the trajectory of humanity. If you don't have hope, you don't think you can change and you regress yourself into destructive behavior. To me hope is the belief that we can change into being better than we are.

I think it's a lie to believe that we can't change. Why? Because we do, all the time.

In any case, this is what I've been thinking about over the past few weeks.

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On timshel, excerpted from East of Eden, pulled from: http://timshel.org/timshel.php

“After two years we felt that we could approach your sixteen verses of the fourth chapter of Genesis. My old gentlemen felt that these words were very important too—‘Thou shalt’ and ‘Do thou.’ And this was the gold from our mining: ‘Thou mayest.’ ‘Thou mayest rule over sin.’ The old gentlemen smiled and nodded and felt the years were well spent. It brought them out of their Chinese shells too, and right now they are studying Greek.”

Samuel said, “It’s a fantastic story. And I’ve tried to follow and maybe I’ve missed somewhere. Why is this word so important?”

Lee’s hand shook as he filled the delicate cups. He drank his down in one gulp. “Don’t you see?” he cried. “The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you can call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in ‘Thou shalt,’ meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’— that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’ Don’t you see?”

“Yes, I see. I do see. But you do not believe this is divine law. Why do you feel its importance?”

“Ah!” said Lee. “I’ve wanted to tell you this for a long time. I even anticipated your questions and I am well prepared. Any writing which has influenced the thinking and the lives of innumerable people is important. Now, there are many millions in their sects and churches who feel the order, ‘Do thou,’ and throw their weight into obedience. And there are millions more who feel predestination in ‘Thou shalt.’ Nothing they may do can interfere with what will be. But ‘Thou mayest’! Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.” Lee’s voice was a chant of triumph.

Money is everything, money is nothing

Money is everything, and money is nothing. This is one of the most interesting insights I've had since starting business school. For a company, meaning the LLC-CCorp-faceless-legal-mumbojumbo contractual relationship, money is everything. Companies exist to generate a profit. Money is the means and the end. There is no reason to have a company if it does not make money. To be sure, it's not unfortunate if the company does other things instead of make money, but that's not the most function of a company.

The most important function of a company is to make money. But a company is nothing without people.

For people, meaning the air-breating-love-making-hand-holding-fun-loving-soul-filled humans, money is nothing. Everything that matters in life to people is precisely not money. We care about freedom, love, justice, god, greed, stability, pleasure, pain, prestige, and truth. Money only matters because it is a way to get one of those things that we actually care about. To be sure, money is important because it's how we can get those other things.

For a person, money is a mere means that's not intrinsically valuable. But we need it.

Paradoxically, money is everything and money is nothing.

Will the city benefit from economic growth initiatives? (Plus a framework)

In business and innovation, Teece's model helps you determine who will profit from an innovation. After learning about it, I got to thinking if that model - or a similar concept - could be translated to cities and regions. So I came back with a question - how do cities know if they will reap the benefits of an economic growth initiative? Here's a model to help answer that question. It's unsubstantiated by data, but it's an intuition that I'd love your feedback on.

THE MODEL

To determine if a city or region will benefit from an economic growth initiative, I propose mapping the initiatives along two axes: the type of growth the initiative intends to create and the source of new revenues created.

As it happens, the quadrant look curiously similar to the Michigan Model of Leadership.

  • Type of Growth - is the growth created because of a creating a new product or services that meets an unmet market need? Or, is it a product or service that tries to steal market share from a competitor?
  • Source of New Revenues - are the incremental revenues created generated from customers in the city? Or, are those revenues collected from people from another locality? In other words, are the revenues exports or not?

USING THE MODEL

A model for determining the sustainability of economic growth.

Using the model is simple. Note that the "city" is a placeholder term for the economic subdivision being analyzed. You could replace "city" with state or region.

Each quadrant has a distinct flavor. I've included notes in each quadrant to help economic growth teams determine the conditions under which they can reap the benefits from initiatives in each quadrant.

  1. Generate a list of all economic growth initiative for the city
  2. Map them on to the model. Initiatives that are 100% new products/services with cash 100% generated from non-local customers would go in the top right hand corner. And so on.
  3. Each quadrant has a distinct flavor. Look at where the distribution of all initiatives across the framework lie. Is it balanced? Should it be balanced?
  4. Look at the quadrant each initiative is in. Are the conditions in that quadrant met? If so, the city may reap the benefits of growth. If not, their ability to reap the benefits of growth will be handicapped.

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Does this model made sense? As an economic development professional, do you find it useful?

 

Business lessons from social movements

My friend Erin raised an interesting question a few weeks ago, during the height of the Ferguson protests. Here's a snippet of what she wrote: "I would love to hear a good lecture/discussion (of series of the same) on the business of social change. I think what people fail to realize about the Civil Rights Movement is how deliberate and strategic its leaders were. For example, they chose Selma for the march for specific reasons...

In the end, a comparison of Selma and Ferguson (and even Occupy Wall Street) would be more than warranted. It’s a different day and time, in some ways, but thought-provoking to consider the definition of tangible metrics for success, identifiable leadership, legal and political leverage, and management of public opinion."

On this point, I agree. It is interesting and important to understand what makes certain transformative efforts successful versus others. In a sentence, though more discussion is obviously warranted, what strikes me about Selma vs. Ferguson is how focused the activists in the Selma were, compared to today's protests.

And that's a lesson for leaders today, when leading other people it's crucially important to focus.

WHY, WHAT, HOW

There are three questions which bring a goal into focus - why, what, and how. Most of the time, business leaders focus on the how. What I think makes organizations and movements (like Selma) effective is very clearly defining the "why?" and "what?".

I think of why, what, and how like a road-trip. What is the destination you want to go to. Why is the reason you want to take the trip. The how is the route you take, the stops you make, and how you pack the car.

The what and why function like the lenses on SLR cameras. An SLR lens has two calibration steps. First, you rotate one of the focus rings to get the framing of the shot in the right range. Then, you rotate the second focus ring to get a clear image through the viewfinder.

Similarly, defining the "why" casts a compelling big-picture frame. Then, defining the "what" helps everyone understand exactly what matters within that frame.

DEFINING WHY AND WHAT

What's difficult is clearly and actually defining "why" and "what." If a leader is able to clearly define these things to his/her team, choosing the "how" is much easier in turn.

Different types of leaders start in different places to define these important questions of what and why. For discussion's sake. Let's assume we're a visionary leader who gets an image of what the future could be and clarifies that vision as he goes.

First, define a vision - this answers who and what.

Then, define why this vision is compelling, using each of these angles:

  • Convictions (Why do we care?) - Strong beliefs tied to intrinsic motivations give people the fortitude to achieve a goal. This is an exercise looking inward.
  • Context (Why now?) - This is an exercise looking outward. In the organizations market/operating environment, why is this vision worth pursuing now? Is there a regulatory change? Is there a new technology? Why is the external environment ideal now rather than later?
  • Capabilities (Why us?) - Each organization has a unique set of resources and skills which lend themselves to achieving different visions. What capabilities do you have which make your organization ideal to go after this vision?

Finally, define the target by addressing the remaining "whats":

  • Purpose (What outcomes do we want to see?) - A vision is broad and purposes are specific objectives. These are smaller, incremental pieces of the larger vision which can be measured and tracked. What are the small group of things that you must achieve for the vision to come true? Define them.
  • Priorities (What matters most, and, what doesn't matter?) - People in an organization need to know what's highest priority and what's not, so that effort and resources are used wisely. Defining what's not important is just as necessary as defining what is.

If a leader, a company, a movement, or any other organization can define the answers to these 6 questions, they have a chance at accomplishing tremendous transformations. And, if you clearly define the whats and whys, it much easier to craft a strategy (a how) to actually get it done.

That's why I think movements like Selma were successful - they were able to clearly define what and why, and then pick the right how to actually make their vision a reality.

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Also, I'd encourage you to read John Hagel's recent post on terrain vs. trajectory-based strategy. It gave me a good boost in congealing my thoughts here.

Business should be truly ambitious

I read two articles about ambition, risk, and innovation this morning. I'd like to share these articles and the thoughts they inspired about business's role in society and my own moonshot goal. THE ARTICLES

"The golden quarter: Some of our greatest cultural and technological achievements took place between 1945 and 1971. Why has progress stalled?" - Why was the post WWII period to technologically groundbreaking and why hasn't the trend continued? This article explores why.

"Google's Larry Page: the most ambitious CEO in the universe" - This is a profile of Google CEO Larry Page (who's a Michigan Alum, by the way) his approach to management, and his aspirations for Google & humanity.

Both pieces are more than worth reading. And as I said before, they helped me get one step closer to crystallizing the "moonshot" everything I do works towards.

But it also helped me better articulate my point of view about business's role in society. I'd like to share that with you first.

BUSINESS SHOULD BE TRULY AMBITIOUS

I'm an MBA at the Ross School of Business, and the new Dean has articulated how Ross is the school that creates leaders that make a positive difference in the world. The implicit assumption there, from my perspective, is that business should make a positive difference in the world.

I don't disagree with this (very much) as an outcome. What I disagree with strongly is the framing, because it doesn't emphasize what's really important. This framing misses the deeper point of ambition.

What I see now is that business should be truly ambitious. What I mean by that is business should create products and services for customers that solve their most challenge and most valuable problems. It just so happens that the most ambitious things are the ones that make a positive difference in the world. So I think it's a subtle mistake to advocate for business's purpose to be making a positive difference in the world, what really matters is for business to be ambitious.

If you do that, making a positive difference in the world is sure to occur. Notice however, that the corollary (if you advocate for making a positive difference, ambition is sure to follow)  is unappealing and untrue. Put another way, what's the point in making a positive difference if it's incremental and not ambitious?

Business shouldn't be about incrementally improving software or developing a slightly more differentiated laundry detergent. Business should do be doing things that are hard and profitable, not easy and profitable. Business should be doing ambitious things that are worthy of the sector's resources and its brightest minds.

Something that truly kills my heart a little bit is to see tremendously bright people join companies that put their talents toward banal purposes. If a mind is a terrible thing to waste, wasting a great mind on uninspired ends is a tragedy.

And that's what I learned, It doesn't matter if we mint business leaders who make a positive difference in the world if they aren't truly ambitious when selecting the problems they choose to solve.

As many of you know, I've had a number of qualms with business school. I think the root of my frustration is that at its core, it doesn't breed true ambition.

MY MOONSHOT: "MANAGEMENT AS FREEDOM"

I think a moonshot - a transformative goal that far exceeds the possibilities of the present day - is something everyone should have. These moonshots are the goals that matter so much to you, you don't care if you fail when trying to achieve them. It's something that you want to take risks to achieve and want to connect with others around.

Moonshots are goals that evolve and become more clear as time passes. Here's my latest understanding of my moonshot.

In the past 100 years or so, organizations and management have been about control. Management has tried to centralize, streamline, and bring consistency to the organizational world. The way organizations treated people was like interchangeable parts in a machine.

I don't believe that management should focus on maintaining control anymore. Management should be about freedom.

I want to rewrite the playbook on management - from its purpose to its strategies to its tactics - so that it focuses on freedom, not control. This means rethinking a host of things, like leader-follower relationships, collaboration, cross-sector partnership, metrics, technology, strategy, and others.

My moonshot is to fundamentally change the practice of management so that every organization in the world is rooted in freedom and not control.

WHAT DO YOU THINK?

  • What's your moonshot?
  • Am I full of it? Is business truly ambitious?