Tag Archives: Mark Zuckerberg

Ideas Have Limited Value

Ideas Have Limited Value

GUEST POST from Greg Satell

There is a line of thinking that says that the world is built on ideas. It was an idea that launched the American Revolution and created a nation. It was an idea that led Albert Einstein to pursue relativity, Linus Pauling to invent a vaccine and for Steve Jobs to create the iPhone and build the most valuable company in the world.

It is because of the power of ideas that we hold them so dear. We want to protect those we believe are valuable and sometimes become jealous when others think them up first. There’s nothing so rapturous as the moment of epiphany in which an idea forms in our mind and begins to take shape.

Clearly, ideas are important, but not as many believe. America is what it is today, for better or worse, not just because of the principles of its founding, but because of the actions that came after it. We revere people like Einstein, Pauling and Jobs not because of their ideas, but what they did with them. The truth is that although possibilities are infinite, ideas are limited.

The Winklevoss Affair

The muddled story of Facebook’s origin is now well known. Mark Zuckerberg met with the Winklevoss twins and another Harvard classmate to discuss building a social network together. Zuckerberg agreed, but then sandbagged his partners while he built and launched a competing site. He would later pay out a multimillion dollar settlement for his misdeeds.

Zuckerberg and the Winklevoss twins were paired in the news together again recently when Facebook announced that it’s developing a new cryptocurrency called Libra. As it happens, the Winklevoss twins have been high profile investors in Bitcoin for a while now. The irony was too delicious for many in the media to ignore. First he stole their idea for Facebook and now he’s doing the same with cryptocurrencies!

Of course this is ridiculous. Social networks like Friendster and Myspace existed before Facebook and many others came after. Most failed. In much the same way, many people today have ideas about starting cryptocurrency businesses. Most of them will fail too. The value of an initial idea is highly questionable.

Different people have similar ideas all the time. In fact, in a landmark study published in 1922 identified 148 major inventions or discoveries that at least two different people, working independently, arrived at the same time. So the fact that both the Winklevoss twins and Zuckerberg wanted to launch a social network was meaningless.

The truth is that Zuckerberg didn’t have to pay the Winklevoss twins because he stole their idea, but because he used their trust to actively undermine their business to benefit his. His crime wasn’t creation, but destruction.

The Semmelweis Myth

In 1847, a young doctor named Ignaz Semmelweis had a major breakthrough. Working in a maternity ward, he discovered that a regime of hand washing could dramatically lower the incidence of childbed fever. Unfortunately, the medical establishment rejected his idea and the germ theory of disease didn’t take hold until decades later.

The phenomenon is now known as the Semmelweis effect, the tendency for people to reject new knowledge that contradicts established beliefs. We tend to think that a great idea will be immediately obvious to everyone, but the opposite usually happens. Ideas that have the power to change the world always arrive out of context for the simple reason that the world hasn’t changed yet.

However, the Semmelweis effect is misleading. As Sherwin Nuland explains in The Doctor’s Plague, there’s more to the story than resistance to a new idea. Semmelweis didn’t see the value in communicating his work effectively, formatting his publications clearly or even collecting data in a manner that would gain his ideas greater acceptance.

Here again, we see the limits of ideas. Like a newborn infant, they can’t survive alone. They need to be nurtured to grow. They need to make friends, interact with other ideas and mature. The tragedy of Semmelweis is not that the medical establishment did not immediately accept his idea, but that he failed to steward it in such a way that it could spread and make an impact.

Why Blockbuster Video Really Failed

One of the most popular business myths today is that of Blockbuster Video. As the story is usually told, the industry giant failed to recognize the disruptive threat that Netflix represented. The truth is that the company’s leadership not only recognized the problem, but developed a smart strategy and executed it well.

The failure, in fact, had less to do with strategy and tactics than it did with managing stakeholder networks. Blockbuster moved quickly to launch an online business, cut late fees and innovated its business model. However, resistance from franchisees, who were concerned that the changes would kill their business, and from investors and analysts, who balked at the cost of the initiatives, sent the stock price reeling.

From there things spiraled downward. The low stock price attracted the corporate raider Carl Icahn, who got control of the board. His overbearing style led to a compensation dispute with Blockbuster’s CEO, John Antioco. Frustrated, Antioco negotiated his exit and left the company in July of 2007.

His successor, Jim Keyes, was determined to reverse Antioco’s strategy, cut investment in the subscription model, reinstated late fees and shifted focus back to the retail stores in a failed attempt to “leapfrog” the online subscription model. Three years later, in 2010, Blockbuster filed for bankruptcy.

The Fundamental Fallacy Of Ideas

One of the things that amazed me while I was researching my book Cascades was how often movements behind powerful ideas failed. The ones that succeeded weren’t those with different ideas or those of higher quality, but those that were able to align small groups, loosely connected, but united by a shared purpose.

The stories of the Winklevoss twins, Ignaz Semmelweis and Blockbuster Video are all different versions of the same fundamental fallacy, that ideas, if they are powerful enough, can stand on their own. Clearly, that’s not the case. Ideas need to be adopted and then combined with other ideas to make an impact on the world.

The truth is that ideas need ecosystems to support them and that doesn’t happen overnight. To make an idea viable in the real world it needs to continually connect outward, gaining adherents and widening its original context. That takes more than an initial epiphany. It takes the will to make the idea subservient to its purpose.

What we have to learn to accept is that what makes an idea powerful is its ability to solve problems. The ideas embedded in the American Constitution were not new at the time of the country’s founding, but gained power by their application in the real world. In much the same way, we revere Einstein’s relativity, Pauling’s vaccine and Jobs iPhone because of their impact on the world.

As G.H. Hardy once put it, “For any serious purpose, intelligence is a very minor gift.” The same can be said about ideas. They do not and cannot stand alone, but need the actions of people to bring them to life.

— Article courtesy of the Digital Tonto blog
— Image credit: Pexels

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Innovation Requires Going Fast, Slow and Meta

Innovation Requires Going Both Fast and Slow

GUEST POST from Greg Satell

In the regulatory filing for Facebook’s 2012 IPO, Mark Zuckerberg included a letter outlining his management philosophy. Entitled, The Hacker Way, it encapsulated much of the zeitgeist. “We have a saying,” he wrote. “‘Move fast and break things.’ The idea is that if you never break anything, you’re probably not moving fast enough.”

At around the same time, Katalin Karikó was quietly plodding away in her lab at the University of Pennsylvania. She had been working on an idea since the early 1990s and it hadn’t amounted to much so far, but was finally beginning to attract some interest. The next year she would join a small startup named BioNTech to commercialize her work and would continue to chip at the problem.

Things would accelerate in early 2020, when Karikó’s mRNA technology was used to design a coronavirus vaccine in a matter of mere hours. Just as Daniel Kahneman explained that there are fast and slow modes of thinking, the same can be said about innovating. The truth is that moving slowly is often underrated and that moving fast can sometimes bog you down.

The Luxury Of Stability

Mark Zuckerberg had the luxury of being disruptive because he was working in a mature, stable environment. His “Hacker Way” letter showed a bias for action over deliberation in the form of “shipping code,” because he had little else to worry about. Facebook could be built fast, because it was built on top of technology that was slowly developed over decades.

The origins of modern computing are complex, with breakthroughs in multiple fields eventually converging into a single technology. Alan Turing and Claude Shannon provided much of the theoretical basis for digital computing in the 1930s and 40s. Yet the vacuum tube technology at the time only allowed for big, clunky machines that were very limited.

A hardware breakthrough came in 1948, when John Bardeen, William Shockley and Walter Brattain invented the transistor, followed by Jack Kilby and Robert Noyce’s development of the integrated circuit in the late 1960s. The first computers were connected to the Internet a decade later and, a generation after that, Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web.

All of this happened very slowly but, by the time Mark Zuckerberg became aware of it all, it was just part of the landscape. Much like older generations grew up with the Interstate Highway System and took for granted that they could ride freely on it, Millennial hackers grew up in a period of technological, not to mention political, stability.

The Dangers Of Disruption

Mark Zuckerberg founded Facebook with a bold idea. “We believe that a more open world is a better world because people with more information can make better decisions and have a greater impact,” he wrote. That vision was central to how he built the company and its products. He believed that enabling broader and more efficient communication would foster a deeper and more complete understanding.

Yet the world looks much different when your vantage point is a technology company in Menlo Park, California then it does from, say, a dacha outside Moscow. If you are an aging authoritarian who is somewhat frustrated by your place in the world rather than a young, hubristic entrepreneur, you may take a dimmer view on things.

For many, if not most, people on earth, the world is often a dark and dangerous place and the best defense is often to go on offense. From that vantage point, an open information system is less an opportunity to promote better understanding and more of a vulnerability you can leverage to exploit your enemy.

In fact, the House of Representatives Committee on Intelligence found that agents of the Russian government used the open nature of Facebook and other social media outlets to spread misinformation and sow discord. That’s the problem with moving fast and breaking things. If you’re not careful, you inevitably end up breaking something important.

This principle will become even more important in the years ahead as the potential for serious disruption increases markedly.

The Four Disruptive Shifts Of The Next Decade

While the era that shaped millennials like Mark Zuckerberg was mostly stable, the next decade is likely to be one of the most turbulent in history, with massive shifts in demography, resources, technology and migration. Each one of these has the potential to be destabilizing, the confluence of all four courts disaster and demands that we tread carefully.

Consider the demographic shift caused by the Millennials and Gen Z’ers coming of age. The last time we had a similar generational transition was with the Baby Boomers in the 1960s, which saw more than its share of social and political strife. The shift in values that will take place over the next ten years or so is likely to be similar in scale and scope.

Yet that’s just the start. We will also be shifting in resources from fossil fuels to renewables, in technology from bits to atoms and in migration globally from south to north and from rural to urban areas. The last time we had so many important structural changes going on at once it was the 1920s and that, as we should remember, did not turn out well.

It’s probably no accident that today, much like a century ago, we seem to yearn for “a return to normalcy.” The past two decades have been exhausting, with global terrorism, a massive financial meltdown and now a pandemic fraying our nerves and heightening our sense of vulnerability.

Still, I can’t help feeling that the lessons of the recent past can serve us well in creating a better future.

We Need To Rededicate Ourselves Tackling Grand Challenges

In Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, he explained that we have two modes of thinking. The first is fast and intuitive. The second is slow and deliberative. His point wasn’t that one was better than the other, but that both have their purpose and we need to learn how to use both effectively. In many ways, the two go hand-in-hand.

One thing that is often overlooked is that to think fast effectively often takes years of preparation. Certain professions, such as surgeons and pilots, train for years to hone their instincts so that they will be able to react quickly and appropriately in an emergency. In many ways, you can’t think fast without first having thought slow.

Innovation is the same way. We were able to develop coronavirus vaccines in record time because of the years of slow, painstaking work by Katalin Karikó and others like her, much like how Mark Zuckerberg was able to “move fast and break things” because of the decades of breakthroughs it took to develop the technology that he “hacked.”

Today, as the digital era is ending, we need to rededicate ourselves to innovating slow. Just as our investment in things like the human genome project has returned hundreds of times what we put into it, our investment in the grand challenges of the future will enable countless new (hopefully more modest) Zuckerbergs to wax poetic about “hacker culture.”

Innovation is never a single event. It is a process of discovery, engineering and transformation and those things never happen in one place or at one time. That’s why we need to innovate fast and slow, build healthy collaborations and set our sights a bit higher.

— Article courtesy of the Digital Tonto blog
— Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

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