The more that I do what I do — which is to bring new things to life by helping others do the same — the more I believe that there are some aspects of business behave in a way that’s similar to the laws that underpin physics. In essence, they are something akin to laws of nature, inviolable and highly predictable.
This statement by Clay Christensen feels like it’s one of them. Trying to grow a new business model inside of an existing business is like trying to raise a baby whale on dry land; in principle it should work (it breathes air, it’s a mammal, we’re mammals, we breath air), but in practice it’s going to kill the whale. Or at best limit what it could have been by forcing it to become an animal different from what it wanted to be.
This past fall, I became a volunteer American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) referee. My experience as a neophyte referee was one of the most meaningful things I did last year. I didn’t expect AYSO soccer to help me grow in my professional life, but with an open heart and mind, insights can come from anywhere.
Founded in 1964, AYSO’s mission is to provide world-class youth soccer programs that enrich children’s lives. On any given Saturday in the U.S., you’ll see teams of boys and girls chasing the ball in AYSO soccer games, with refs like me there to ensure that everyone has an experience that’s safe, fair, and most of all, fun.
After several evenings of training, I qualified to referee matches for kids under age 8. Run without goalies, their games feature stunning breakaways and enough breathtaking shots on goal to make Arsène Wenger green with envy. This is real soccer. I’m fairly fit, but in our matches I had to run hard to keep up with these future Carli Lloyds. Seriously though: 7-year-olds can sprint really fast!
My professional life revolves around bringing new stuff into the world, and helping others do the same. As such, I’m always on the lookout for better models for leadership in the pursuit of creative outcomes. I used to think of the role of orchestra conductor as great metaphor for creative leadership, but in my experience it’s too hierarchical an approach to work in most contexts. Recently I’ve written that leaders should think of themselves as gardeners. But who in the workplace wants to think of themselves as an innocent head of broccoli on the receiving end of fertilizer — or even a spade?
I now believe that refereeing soccer — in the AYSO sense of the role — is a fascinating model for leadership in the workplace. That’s because of the PIE framework that’s a central part of the league’s referee and coach training. What PIE says is that any coach or referee interacting with players must always be:
In a world where the dominant mindset of referees (and bosses, and sometimes even coaches) is to be an enforcer rather than a teacher, this is easier said than done.
Here’s an experience I had trying to live the PIE philosophy on the field one bright Saturday morning in California. I had a talented player who was full of energy and having a good game, pouring huge amounts of energy into her play. However, as the match flowed on, I noticed that when in close quarters with other players (from both teams), she was consistently a little over-enthusiastic with the sharp parts of her elbows. How to enforce the rules while being as positive, instructional, and encouraging as possible? I gave my whistle a pip, gathered both squads around, and calmly asked them to all position their arms like chicken wings. And then I asked everyone to give them a few good flaps. We then observed as a group that when our arms were out like this, touching other soccer players with our elbows could hurt someone, and that didn’t seem like a fun way to play. With nodding of heads, some giggles and some smiles, we recommenced our soccer frenzy with an exciting drop-ball.
I guarantee you that this intervention was more effective, more memorable, and positive for everyone — players, parents, coaches, me — than the standard approach we see in sports or at work: a penalty whistle meant to shame a specific individual, reprimanding them in the present to limit their behavior in the future. Now, would a chicken-wing circle be appropriate when Martin Skrtel stomps an opponent like a flamenco dancer who has slurped one too many espressos? No, but I believe that individuals raise or lower their behaviors and beliefs to the expectations of the environment they work or play in. A consistently positive, optimistic, and encouraging culture can teach people that there’s a better way to be in the world.
Built into the core of a culture, a guiding philosophy like PIE creates the ideal circumstances for an up and coming leader to practice a form of leadership that helps other people grow to become the person they want to be. When it comes to leading people in creative endeavors, you could do a lot worse than to think and act like a PIE-centered referee. Keeping players engaged in a flowing game, stopping play only when absolutely essential, and using those moments as a teachable moment where the group almost leads itself — it’s a wonderful metaphor for creative leadership. As Stanford d.school founder David Kelley once said, “I can give you the confidence that you are a leader by giving some experiences where it comes out better than you thought and you were the leader.” A PIE approach — positive, instructional, and encouraging — helps you lead in that way.
All of this is why I’m proud to make being an AYSO referee part of my life outside of work, and it’s why I hope to keep on carrying a whistle (but not blowing it much) for years to come.
“The problem with conflating a disruptive innovation with any breakthrough that changes an industry’s competitive patterns is that different types of innovation require different strategic approaches. To put it another way, the lessons we’ve learned about succeeding as a disruptive innovator (or defending against a disruptive challenger) will not apply to every company in a shifting market. If we get sloppy with our labels or fail to integrate insights from subsequent research and experience into the original theory, then managers may end up using the wrong tools for their context, reducing their chances of success.”
– Clay Christensen, Michael Raynor, and Rory McDonald, What is Disruptive Innovation?
Amen. This is a wonderful, very timely article.
Mandatory reading for anyone engaged in the art and science of bringing cool stuff to life.
It’s very likely that the cars we drive in 2025 won’t feel anything like those we use today. Over the next few years, all the technological, legal, and societal factors required for viable self-driving cars are likely to fall into place. By 2025, autonomous vehicles may very well be the norm in many cities and highways around the world.*
As the duty for driving shifts from humans to computers, our shared definition of what a car is will undergo a radical transformation. When you think about it, the modern automobile still hews closely to a design template set by the Ford Model T: four wheels, a gasoline engine, some forward-facing seats, and a steering wheel for the driver. By 2025 that monolithic automotive design paradigm will fork to create multiple new branches on the family tree, each representing a new species of car. Some will be fully robotic, others will not. Some will be powered by batteries or fuel cells. Some will be for active driving, but most will be designed passive ridership.
So self-driving cars present a fork in the road, and we need to take it. Here’s the design opportunity: if we proceed thoughtfully and with some deliberation, this branching of the automotive tree could increase our access to high-quality mobility while making it a better experience, too.
What would this branching look like? Former BMW design chief Chris Bangle can help here. In a design conversation that he and I shared a few years ago, he articulated a nuanced distinction between “cars” and “auto-mobiles”. A “car” is an emotionally evocative machine such as the Jaguar E-Type. An “auto-mobile” serves up utilitarian transportation with a minimum of fuss, such as the anonymous (but competent) sedan I rented at the airport last week. Whether or not it’s a “car” or an “auto-mobile” that gets created depends on the point-of-view of its designers.
To further explore the idea of branching the car, let’s explore the quadrants created when we overlay two axes: on the horizontal, the point-of-view behind a car’s design, and on the vertical the degree to which it can drive autonomously:
Here’s a brief discussion of what’s happening in each of these four quadrants:
post-fork opportunity: None. Auto-mobiles in this category will eventually cease to exist as human drivers become uneconomical for routine activities.
examples: present-day taxis, UPS trucks
post-fork opportunity: Big gains for the likes of UPS and Uber, as robotic delivery auto-mobiles carry goods with higher levels of efficiency and utilization. Also, a better commuter experience: individual passenger auto-mobile pods become akin to public transportation, with shared or societal ownership.
examples: Cody the Mule, Google self-driving car prototypes
post-fork opportunity: The $100,000,000,000 question: what exactly is a car that’s as fabulous as a Mandarin Oriental lobby but willing to drive us anywhere we want to go? Massive innovation opportunities to be had here—we can’t yet imagine the experiences created by these types of cars.
examples: None extant today, though the remarkable Porsche Mission E concept provides a small glimpse of this future. Given their highly emotive designs, I wouldn’t be surprised if people want to own (or lease) these living rooms on wheels.
post-fork opportunity: Internal Combustion-powered cars as the new Patek Philippe watch—more complex and less capable than their solid-state cousins, but a visceral thrill as well as a status symbol for those who choose to display their money this way. The recent run-up in prices of vintage Porsches is evidence that non-autonomous cars with manual transmissions and gas motors are already being priced in anticipation of this scenario—the thrill of driving a complex machine fast will become a rarefied luxury experience. Here cars really will be like horses, a pastime of enthusiasts, with dedicated spaces for frolicking. Might regulations evolve to exempt future Quadrant 4 designs from mainstream crash tests and insurance guidelines? Could be.
examples: a Ferrari 250 GT SWB, the Goodwood Revival
So when this happens, we may have an automotive tree with three distinct branches: Quadrants 2, 3, and 4. Once we fork the car, Quadrant 1 ceases to be a typology of car you’d see on the street. The emergence of the other three automotive species has interesting implications for purveyors and consumers of mobility in 2025.
Today’s automakers still market a dream that smells like Quadrant 4, but as a viable business proposition, this market will radically contract. Simply put, many of us will cease to buy cars that we ever expect to drive. Current auto manufacturers could, however, take their marketing and design savvy and go create emotionally rich mobility experiences for Quadrant 3, and we may buy those instead. This isn’t to say that Quadrant 4 won’t be a lucrative place to do business, but it may the sole hunting grounds of storied marques the likes of Ferrari, Aston Martin, and Lotus, whose bonafides were established in the heroic age of car racing.
There’s enormous value to be claimed by new entrants into this forked mobility market. If Quadrant 3 is about the experience you have riding in your car (as opposed to driving it), brands such as Virgin and Disney now have a right to play as purveyors of mobility. Because it’s difficult to teach elephants new dance steps, it may be easier for a customer experience-focused brand like Apple to be successful in this quadrant than to take a car company and make it act as a service or software creator would. And with their emphasis on achieving efficiencies of scope and scale through the control of comprehensive data sets, organizations such as Amazon and Alibaba could dominate the landscape of Quadrant 2.
With change comes great opportunity. It’s high time to branch the car, and to start creating exciting new directions for the future.
* It could very well take longer than a decade for all the pieces of the puzzle to get sorted out, so I’m using 2025 here just for the sake of argument. A decade implies two or three product cycles for the auto industry, but is a lifetime when it comes to digital devices, which live on an accelerated schedule dictated by Moore’s Law. So while it’s not wise to predict the exact timing of the changes we’ll see in the automotive landscape, the shifts I describe above do seem inevitable. Plus, the year 2025 makes for a headline that rhymes.
Many thanks to Piper Loyd for creating the 2×2 graphic above.
to: Manufacturers of Internal Combustion Cars
subject: Your Future Credibility
September 2015 will go down as the year when even gearheads lost faith in your industry. Whether or not you saw it as a future platform, #DieselGate’s fallout doesn’t just imperil diesel’s market viability, but that of gasoline-powered internal combustion motors as well.
The public’s trust has been violated. By shipping cars with computer code designed to subvert emissions tests, VW breached a basic covenant that product creators hold with the communities they live in. Not all of you are at fault with #DieselGate, but at stake is your shared reputation as an industry.
Now is your moment to go ride the high country. To do what’s noble and high-minded, no matter how difficult. To do what’s right.
Here’s my suggestion: publish all of your emissions-related computer code to the public domain. Make it available for anyone in the world to poke, prod, and put through the wringer.
Upload it to GitHub. Because this is about transparency and (re)building trust, don’t allow lawyers to saddle your code with an obfuscating, bazillion-page software agreement. Instead, employ a Creative Commons license that we can all understand and trust. This particular license doesn’t allow any commercial use or the distribution of derivatives, so you’re protected there.
Worried about IP theft or public embarrassment? Those who desire your code for nefarious purposes have probably already hacked you (or will). And as for flaws, we citizens will help identify opportunities to improve your code. As Eric Raymond once said, “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow”. By the way, a commissioner from the US Federal Trade Commission agrees with me on that last point.
No need to publish all of your code just yet. Begin with what could lead to yet another #DieselGate, and let’s start rebuilding the trust.
That’s just one idea (and admittedly a rather radical one), but now is the time to think big and think different.
Yours in Mobility,
Today is Back to the Future Day! But via some Silicon Valley-enabled time travel, I celebrated it a bit early at a special Revs Program at Stanford unveiling held last evening. It was the debut of MARTY, an electric, self-driving DeLorean designed to execute gnarly drifts.
Dr. Emmett Brown would be so proud!
MARTY—a delightful acronym which stands for Multiple Actuator Research Test bed for Yaw control—is the brainchild of a multidisciplinary group of Stanford innovators. Professor Chris Gerdes of Stanford’s Center for Automotive Research led a team of students who took a stock, gas-powered DeLorean and transformed it into MARTY. Along the way, they created almost everything from scratch, from the code guiding MARTY through the world to the rollcage protecting its passengers to a new suspension design meant to help keep those spinning tires connected to the tarmac. Their industry partner for this adventure was Renovo Motors, creators of some incredibly exciting new electric vehicle technologies.
Why go through all of this trouble to enable an old hunk of British fiberglass and stainless steel to run and weave with the effortless grace of Raheem Sterling? Here’s what Professor Gerdes has to say about the vision behind the project:
We want to design automated vehicles that can take any action necessary to avoid an accident. The laws of physics will limit what the car can do, but we think the software should be capable of any possible maneuver within those limits. MARTY is another step in this direction, thanks to the passion and hard work of our students.
From a strictly rational point of view, the team didn’t need to start with a DeLorean. But it provided a fun way to go on this learning journey, one that has a higher purpose around safety and the future of transportation.
Last night’s Revs Program event featured two individuals who went on that quest for knowledge, Stanford students Jonathan Goh and Shannon McClintock. They were there to represent the larger team of students who put in thousands of hours bringing MARTY to life. I found their story of learning by doing deeply inspiring; it was all about plunging head-first into an incredibly complex problem, and succeeding via a process of enlightened trial and error. Professor Gerdes best summed up the spirit of the evening with this powerful statement about what makes for a transformative educational experience:
Unless you’ve built it and broken it, you really don’t understand it.
Powerful words to live by for innovators everywhere.
On that note, over the next few weeks I’ll be writing here about future innovation opportunities created by the advent of autonomous cars. What I love about MARTY is how it takes the premise of the autonomous automobile—whose narrative has heretofore been dominated by stories of appliance-like conveyance experiences between points A and B—and injects a whole new point of view about dynamism and perhaps even just some plain old fun. What might our future be like if we choose to create self-driving cars with positive emotions as a design priority?
Robotic doughnuts, anyone?
images & videos courtesy of Stanford University
“Victory on the field is more often a result of three yards and a cloud of dust. I like that. So, too, startups. It’s not about being on stage at a Demo Day or featured in an article in TechCrunch or closing a $20 million round. It’s about continually shipping code. It’s about putting out menacing bugs. It’s about a 6:15am flight to a customer in Detroit in Winter for a $200k deal to hit your budget for the quarter.”
I made it on to Jalopnik! Actually, I don’t think this is the first time something metacool-related has been on there (or was it AutoBlog?), but it’s always fun to see yourself on the web. When I was a kid in the 1970’s, finding a way to show up on the local evening news was pretty much the only way you’d ever see yourself on any electronic media. In a world where YouFace has become part of the fabric of everyday life, I assume that today’s digital natives don’t see much of a special thrill in this kind of an external event, but for me it’s still a thrill.
I attended Porsche Rennsport Reunion V this past Sunday. What an exhilarating yet overwhelming event. Every type of Porsche ever produced was there (though I didn’t see a Porsche tractor…), and most of them were THE one. The one that won Le Mans the year I was born, the one that first won Le Mans, the one that was driven by such-and-such famous driver. Everything. So awesome.
Among many cool things was a 911 built out of 380,000 pieces of LEGO. Here’s a photo I snapped of it:
And here’s the photo which appeared on Jalopnik of me taking that photo (photo credit Porsche):