Category Archives: Innovation

Talent vs Luck: the role of randomness in success and failure

I must thank my friend and colleague Fuad for pointing to me a remarkable research article entitled Talent vs Luck: the role of randomness in success and failure. You can find the paper on Arxiv in pdf format.

I must say this resonates with research I did in the past on serial entrepreneurs, where I discovered there was no real correlation between experience and success in high-tech entrepreneurship. Here is a link to this work: Serial entrepreneurs: are they better?

If you are interested, just download and read the paper. Here are some short teasers from their paper:

It is very well known that intelligence (or, more in general, talent and personal qualities) exhibits a Gaussian distribution among the population, whereas the distribution of wealth – often considered a proxy of success – follows typically a power law (Pareto law), with a large majority of poor people and a very small number of billionaires. Such a discrepancy between a Normal distribution of inputs, with a typical scale (the average talent or intelligence), and the scale invariant distribution of outputs, suggests that some hidden ingredient is at work behind the scenes. In this paper, with the help of a very simple agent-based toy model, we suggest that such an ingredient is just randomness. [Page 1]

There is nowadays an ever greater evidence about the fundamental role of chance, luck or, more in general, random factors, in determining successes or failures in our personal and professional lives. In particular, it has been shown that scientists have the same chance along their career of publishing their biggest hit; that those with earlier surname initials are significantly more likely to receive tenure at top departments; that the distributions of bibliometric indicators collected by a scholar might be the result of chance and noise related to multiplicative phenomena connected to a publish or perish inflationary mechanism; that one’s position in an alphabetically sorted list may be important in determining access to over-subscribed public services; that middle name initials enhance evaluations of intellectual performance; that people with easy-to-pronounce names are judged more positively than those with difficult-to-pronounce names; that individuals with noble-sounding surnames are found to work more often as managers than as employees; that females with masculine monikers are more successful in legal careers; that roughly half of the variance in incomes across persons worldwide is explained only by their country of residence and by the income distribution within that country; that the probability of becoming a CEO is strongly influenced by your name or by your month of birth; that the innovative ideas are the results of a random walk in our brain network; and that even the probability of developing a cancer, maybe cutting a brilliant career, is mainly due to simple bad luck. Recent studies on lifetime reproductive success further corroborate these statements showing that, if trait variation may influence the fate of populations, luck often governs the lives of individuals. [Page 2]

So here are some striking results:

But to understand the real meaning of [these] findings it is important to distinguish the macro from the micro point of view. In fact, from the micro point of view, following the dynamical rules of the model, a talented individual has a greater a priori probability to reach a high level of success than a moderately gifted one, since she has a greater ability to grasp any opportunity that will come. Of course, luck has to help her in yielding those opportunities. Therefore, from the point of view of a single individual, we should therefore conclude that, being impossible (by definition) to control the occurrence of lucky events, the best strategy to increase the probability of success (at any talent level) is to broaden the personal activity, the production of ideas, the communication with other people, seeking for diversity and mutual enrichment. In other words, to be an open- minded person, ready to be in contact with others, exposes to the highest probability of lucky events (to be exploited by means of the personal talent). On the other hand, from the macro point of view of the entire society, the probability to find moderately gifted individuals at the top levels of success is greater than that of finding there very talented ones, because moderately gifted people are much more numerous and, with the help of luck, have – globally – a statistical advantage to reach a great success, in spite of their lower individual a priori probability. [Page 14]

The authors draw some practical recommendations: for example, for strategies about funding research among a diversity of talented people looking at the table [below], it is evident that, if the goal is to reward the most talented persons (thus increasing their final level of success [C]), it is much more convenient to distribute periodically (even small) equal amounts of capital to all individuals rather than to give a greater capital only to a small percentage of them, selected through their level of success – already reached – at the moment of the distribution. The histogram shows that the “egalitarian” criterion, which assigns 1 unit of capital every 5 years to all the individuals is the most effcient way to distribute funds. [Pages 17-18]

Finally, the environment may have a role, such as improbing education, hence talent: Strengthening the training of the most gifted people or increasing the average level of education produce, as one could expect, some beneficial effects on the social system, since both these policies raise the probability, for talented individuals, to grasp the opportunities that luck presents to them. On the other hand, the enhancement in the average percentage of highly talented people who are able to reach a good level of success, seems to be not particularly remarkable in both the cases analyzed, therefore the result of the corresponding educational policies appears mainly restricted to the emergence of isolated extreme successful cases. […] Also, it results that increasing the variance without changing the average, enhances the chances for more talented people to get a very high success. This, on one hand, could be considered positive but, on the other hand, it is an isolated case and it has, as a counterpart, an increase in the gap between unsuccessful and successful people. Increasing the average without changing the variance induces that also in this case the chances for more talented people to get a very high success are enhanced, while the gap between unsuccessful and successful people is lower than before. [Pages 20-21]

As a stimulating conclusion, the authors write: Our results highlight the risks of the paradigm that we call “naive meritocracy”, which fails to give honors and rewards to the most competent people, because it underestimates the role of randomness among the determinants of success. In this respect, several dfferent scenarios have been investigated in order to discuss more effcient strategies, which are able to counterbalance the unpredictable role of luck and give more opportunities and resources to the most talented ones – a purpose that should be the main aim of a truly meritocratic approach. Such strategies have also been shown to be the most beneficial for the entire society, since they tend to increase the diversity of ideas and perspectives in research, thus fostering also innovation. [Page 23]

Titles in Start-ups

I had a few days ago a conversation about why I thought titles such as CEO or CTO were not such a good idea in start-ups. I thought this was a close debate and apparently not. So let me try to elaborate.

A good quote – I just found trying to structure my thinking – is “CEO means in a startup Chief Everything Officer”! CTO means someone who does not want to interact with customers while Business Development means the opposite. But you would not use VP of Sales in a small team…

In the book Startup Nation, there is something similar: “The multitasking mentality produces an environment in which job titles — and the compartmentalization that goes along with them — don’t mean much.”

There are two articles worth reading: first, my favorite start-up guru, Steve Blank, Job Titles That Can Sink Your Startup. Second, Start-ups should eliminate job titles by Jeff Bussgang.

Steve Blank explains titles are for established companies with knwon business models and known processes: Companies Have Titles to Execute a Known Business Model. […] Therefore the job title “Sales” in an existing company is all about execution around a series of “knowns.” [For example] Did he have a repeatable and scalable business model? Did he have a well understood group of customers? […] Startups Need Different Titles to Search For an Unknown Business Model. You didn’t need a VP of Sales, you needed something very different. Searching around a series of unknowns. You needed a VP of Customer Development

I am not sure I am allowed to do the following but here is a long extract from Bussgang: “Job titles make sense for mature companies, not for start-ups. […] At business school, I learned all about titles and hierarchies and the importance of organizational structure. When I joined my first start-up after graduation, e-commerce leader Open Market, I found the operating philosophy of the founder jarring: He declared no one would have titles in the first few years. If you needed a title for external reasons, our founder told us, we should feel free to make one up. But we would avoid using labels internally. In other words, there would be no “vice-president” or “director” or other such hierarchical denominations.

Why? Because a start-up is so fluid, roles changes, responsibilities evolve and reporting structures move around fluidly. Titles represent friction, pure and simple, and the one thing you want to reduce in a start-up is friction. By avoiding titles, you avoid early employees getting fixated on their role, who they report to, and what their scope of responsibility is – all things that rapidly change in a company’s first year or two.

So when I co-founded Upromise, I instituted a similar policy. We had an open office structure and functional teams, but a fluid organizational environment and rapid growth. One of our young team members changed jobs four times in her first year. Only after the first year, as we settled into a more stable organizational structure and I recruited senior executives who were more obviously going to serve as my direct reports on the executive team did I begin to give out titles (CTO, CMO, CFO, etc.). But you can establish role and process clarity without having to depend on titles.

Here is Steve Blank visual summary of all this:

In his four steps to the epiphany, he adds a quick check list about this:
Goal of phase O-b: Set up the Customer Development Team. Agree on Customer Development team methodology and goals.
Author: Whoever is acting as CEO
Approval: Entire Founding Team/Board
Presenter: CEO
Time/Effort: 1/2-l day meeting of entire founding team
A- Review the organizational differences between Product and Customer Development – Traditional titles versus functional ones.
1. No VP of Sales
2. No VP of Marketing
3. No VP of Business Development
B-Identify the four key functional roles for the first four phases of a startup
1. Who is the Business Visionary
2. Who is the Business Execution
3. Who is the Technical Visionary
4. Who is the Technical Execution
C-Review the goals of each of the roles for each of the four Customer Development phases
D-Enumerate 3 to 5 Core Values of the Founding Team
1. Not a mission statement
2. Not about profit or products
3. Core ideology is about what the company believes in
Phase O-b Exit Criteria: Buy-in of the team and board for functional job descriptions, right people in those jobs, core values

PS: you may find more interesting advice from Steve Blank in
How To Find the Right Co-Founders? – https://steveblank.com/2014/09/16/who-do-you-need-on-your-startup-team/
Why Founders Should Know How to Code – https://steveblank.com/2014/09/03/should-founders-know-how-to-code/
Building Great Founding Teams – https://steveblank.com/2013/07/29/building-great-founding-teams/

and you may want to listen to Randy Komisar about entrepreneurship skills

PS2: I revisited my blog and saw the tag “team” was also relevant, direct link is here www.startup-book.com/tag/team/

Deeptech generation – a guide to young aspiring entrepreneurs

I just read two very nice guides about deeptech entrepreneurship. They’ve been published by BPI, the French Public Investment Bank. Either you read French or you will only read a couple of quotes I translated. I have however put the slideshare links at the end of the post.

So here are some testimonies:

Do not be afraid to start your startup, even if it may seem complex and endless. Whether the result is positive or a little less, it is an adventure that you will not be taken away from, just like a PhD. Entrepreneurship brings so much into your life, into your curriculum. Entrepreneurship is a continuous training that can only be rewarding.

The transition from my doctorate to the status of entrepreneur came naturally. The technology of […] was my doctoral topic, we had already developed several prototypes that we had evaluated and which were promising. We could not stop there without giving end users, who really need it, the benefit of this innovation. We decided to create the startup and to launch it until the commercialization of the device.

The world of entrepreneurship opened me up to new horizons and brought me experiences that I never imagined when we started a few years ago.

The creation of a startup is a very beautiful experience, a human one first of all. By creating […] I met people I would never have otherwise. It’s also a work experience, because doing research and ending up with a finished product is not at all the same thing. Finally, as a laboratory director I consider that valorization is part of my missions, and it also brings us a lot of visibility at the regional level, because we create value and jobs.

What drives you to do that is a human experience: be willing to go to the very end of a topic that you are passionate about. Do not do it because it’s fashionable but because it fascinates you.

When you go from researcher to entrepreneur everything changes: the way former colleagues and friends look at you, the prospects of professional evolution. The question must be asked: “Am I aligned with my personal values?”

To go from scientist to entrepreneur is often to put what you like aside. You have to get into finance, IP, contracts … It’s a real change of mindset. In parallel, meetings and the emergence of new opportunities require a real agility in the way of thinking and constantly questioning the vision of your work.

Contributing to the creation of […] allowed me to discover an unknown world, that of the industrial world and marketing, and brought me a lot of things: the additional respect of my colleagues, the recognition and the […] gratitude […] for the positive impact (to come) on the economic activity of the region. This brought me a real satisfaction because my academic research finds consumers and therefore a real usefulness. And more people are working on my ideas since I started the business.

Loonshots or how to nurture crazy ideas by Safi Bahcall

This is one of the best books about innovation I have read in years. The importance of crazy ideas, not the recipe on how to make them successful, but the attitude to make them less crazy. And more importanly, crazy ideas have much more impact on our lives than we may think. A must read. Here are some extracts to convicne you…

Loonshot : a neglected project, widely dismissed, its champion written-off as unhinged.

The Loonshot thesis :
1. The most important breakthroughs come from loonshots, widely dismissed ideas whose champions are often written off as crazy.
2. Large groups of people are needed to translate those breakthroughs into technologies that win wars, products that save lives, or strategies that change industries.
3. Applying the science of phase transitions to the behavior of teams, companies, or any group with a mission provides practical rules for nurturing loonshots faster and better. [Page 2]

“Bush changed national research the same way Vail changed corporate research. Both recognized that the big ideas – the breakthroughs that change the course of science, business, and history – fail many times before they succeed. Sometimes they survive through sheer chance. In other words, the breakthroughs that change our world are born from the marriage of genius and serendipity.” [Page 37]

“But the ones who truly succeed – the engineers of serendipity – play a more humble role. Rather than champion any individual loonshot, they create an outstanding structure for nurturing many loonshots. Rather than visionary innovators, they are careful gardeners. They ensure that both loonshots and franchises are tended well, that neither dominates the other, and that each side nurtures and supports the other.” [page 38]

“As we will see over the next chapters, managing the touch and the balance is an art. Overmanaging the transfer causes one kind of trap. Undemanaging that transfer causes another.” [Page 42]

A project champion: On the creative side, inventors (artists) often believe that their work should speak for itself. Most find any kind of promotion distasteful. On the business side, line managers (soldiers) don’t see the need for someone who doesn’t make or sell stuff – for someone whose job is simply to promote an idea internally. But great project champions are much more than promoters. They are bilingual specialists, fluent in both artist-speak and soldier-speak, who can bring the two sides together. [Page 63]

Contrarian answers, with confidence, create very attractive investments. [Page 63]

LSC: Listen to the Suck with Curiosity. LSC, for me, is a signal. When someone challenges the project you’ve invested years in, do you defend with anger or investigate with genuine curiosity? [Page 64]


Some famous creators of Loonshots:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Akira_Endo_(biochemist)
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Juan_Trippe
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edwin_H._Land

Years later, Land became known for a saying: “Do not undertake a program unless the goal is manifestly important and its achievement nearly impossible.” [Page 96]

“Then the author has an amazing thesis about team size. “I will show that team size plays the same role in organizations that temperature does for liquids and solids. As team size crosses a “magic number”, the balance of incentives shifts from encouraging a focus on loonshots to a focus on careers.” [Page 164]

This magic number is

“Where G is the salary growth rate with promotion (for example 12%); S is management span – if it is narrow, each manager has a small number of direct reports and there are many hierarchical layers, whereas if it is wide, there will be more direct reports and less hierarchy – E is the equity fraction which ties your pay to the quality of your work. The final parameter F for fitness is return on politics vs. project-skill fit.
In many cases the magic number M equals 150… [pages 195-200]
Safi Bahcall has many other rich descriptions including the importance of power laws in innovations [Page 178] or this one [Page 240]

For a loonshot nursery to flourish – inside either a company or an industry – three conditions must be met:
1. Phase separation : separate lonnshot and franchise groups
2. Dynamic elequilibrium: seamless exchange between the two groups
3. Critical mass: a lonnshot group large enough to ignite.

Applied to companies, the first two are the first Bush-Vail rules discussed in part one. The third, critical mass, has to do with commitment. If there is no money to pay for hiring good people or funding early-stage ideas and projects, a loonshot group will wither, no matter how well designed. To thrive, a loonshot group needs a chain reaction. A research lab that produces a successful drug, a hit product, or award-winning designs will attract top talent. Inventors and creatives will want to bring new ideas and ride the wave of a winning team. The success will justify more funding. More projects and more funding increase the odds of more hits – the positive feedback lopp of a chain reaction.

How many projects are needed to achieve critical mass? Suppose odds are 1 in 10 that any one loonshot will succeed. Critical mass to ignite the reaction with high confidence requires investing in at least two dozen such loonshots (a diversified portfolio of ten of those loonhsots has a 65 percent likelihood of producing at least one win; two dozen, a 92 percent likelihood).” [Pages 240-1]

Disruptive innovation again [Page 263]

Use “disruptive Innovation” to analyze history; nurture loonshots to test beliefs.

In an article addressing recent controversy about the notion of disruptive innovation, Christensen explains why Uber is not disruptive, by his definition, and why the iPhone also began as a sustainable innovation. In Chapter 3, we saw that American Airlines – a large incumbent, not a new entrant – led the airline industry after deregulation with many brilliant “sustaining” innovations targeted to high-end customers. Hundreds of low-cost, specialty airline startups, “disruptive innovators” failed.
If the transistor, google, the iPhone, Uber, Walmart, IKEA, and American Airlines’ Big Data and other industry-transforming ideas were all initially sustaining innovations, and hundreds of “disruptive innovators” fail, perhaps the distinction between sustaining vs. disruptive, while interesting academically or in hindsight, is less critical for steering businesses in real time than other notions.
That, at least, is why I don’t use the distinction in this book. I use the distinction between S-type and P-type because teams and companies or any large organization develop deeply held beliefs, sometimes consciously, often not, about both strategies and products – and loonshots are contrarian bets that challenge those beliefs. Perhaps everything that you are sure is true about your products or your business model is right, and the people telling you about some crazy idea that challenges your beliefs are wrong. But what if they aren’t? Wouldn’t you rather discover that in your own lab or pilot study, rather than read about it in a press release from one of your competitors? How much risk are you willing to take by dismissing their idea?
We want to design our teams, companies, and nations to nurture loonshots – in a way that maintains the delicate balance with our franchises – so that we avoid ending up like the Qianlong emperor. The one how dismissed those “strange or ingenious objects”, the same strange and ingenious objects that returned in the hands of his adversaries, years later, and doomed his empire.

Bill Campbell, the Trillion Dollar Coach (Part II)

A short second post following my recent one, here. Short notes.

Eric Schmidt and its coauthors emphasize the importance of teams, of people and of products. For example:

“In our previous book, How Google Works, we argue that there is a new breed of employee, the smart creative, who is critical to achieving this speed and innovation. The smart creative is someone who combines technical depth with business savvy and creative flair. […] As we were researching this book and talking to the dozens of people Bill had coached in his career, we realized that this thesis misses an important piece of the business success puzzle. There is another , equally critical, factor for success in companies: teams that act as communities. integrating interests and putting aside differences to be individually and collectively obsessed with what’s good for the company. […] But adhering to these principles is hard, and it gets even harder when you add factors such as fast-moving industries, complex business models, technology-driven shifts, smart competitors, sky-high customer expectations, global expansion, demanding teammates… […] To balance the tension and mold a team into a community, you need a coach, someone who works not only with individuals but also with the team.” [Pages 22-4]

“Bill started his business career as an advertising and marketing guy, then added sales to his portfolio after joining Apple. But through his experiences in the tech world, in his stints at Apple, Intuit, Google, and others, Bill came to appreciate the preeminence of technology and product in the business pecking order. “The purpose of a company is to take the vision you have of the product and bring it to life,” he said once at a conference. “Then you put all the other components around it – finance, sales, marketing – to get the product out the door and make sure it’s successful.” This was not the way things were done in Silicon Valley, or most other places, when Bill came to town in the 1980s. The model then was that while a company might be started by a technologist, pretty soon the powers that be would bring in a business guy with experience in sales, marketing, finance, or operations, to run the place. These executives wouldn’t be thinking about the needs of the engineer and weren’t focused on product first. Bill was a business guy, but he believed that nothing was more important than an empowered engineer. His constant point: product teams are the heart of the company. They are the ones who create new features and new products.” [Pages 67-8]

About teams again, and trust : “Not surprisingly when Google conducted a study to determine the factors behind high-performing teams, psychological safety came out at the top of the list [1]. The common notions that the best teams are made up of people with complementary skill sets or similar personalities were disproven; the best teams are the ones with the most psychological safety, And that starts with trust.” [Page 84]

About talent: Bill looked for four characteristics in people. The person has to be smart, not necessarily academically but more from the standpoint of being able to get up to speed quickly in different areas and then make connections. Bill called this the ability to make “far analogies”. The person has to work hard, and has to have high integrity. Finally, the person should have the hard-to-define characteristic: grit. The ability to get knocked down and have the passion and perseverance to get up and go at it again.” [Page 116]

And finally, may be most importantly, about founders: “He held a very special place in his heart for the people who have the guts and skills to start companies. They are sane enough to know that every day is a fight for survival against daunting odds and crazy enough to think they can succeed anyway. And retaining them in a meaningful way is essential to success in any company. Too often we think about running a company as an operating job, and as we have already examined, Bill considered operational excellence to be very important. But when we reduce company leadership to its operational essence, we negate another very important component: vision. Many times operating people come in, and though they may run the company better, they lose the heart and soul of the company.” [Page 178]

In conclusion, People, People, People.

[1] More details about the study can be found in James Graham, “What Google Learned from Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team” New York Times, February 25, 2016.

The Ideology of Silicon Valley by Fred Turner and Jean-Pierre Dupuy (among others)

Excellent issue of the famous French review Esprit on The Ideology of Silicon Valley. You’ll find contibutions by Emmanuel Alloa, Jean-Baptiste Soufron, Fred Turner, Shoshana Zuboff, Antonio Casilli and Jean-Pierre Dupuy.

I was especially struck by the surprising interview with Fred Turner: Do not be Evil. Utopias, borders and brogrammers. This is in fact a translation from LogicMag, which you can find here: Don’t Be Evil. It is really worth reading! It is his explanation of the roots of Silicon Valley that surprised me the most and how they still influence today this region which in the end is not very ideological, even if the other authors have different points of view.

For example: “It owes its origins to 1960s communalism. A brief primer on the counterculture: there were actually two countercultures. One, the New Left, did politics to change politics. It was very much focused on institutions, and not really afraid of hierarchy. The other—and this is where the tech world gets its mojo—is what I’ve called the New Communalists. Between 1966 and 1973, we had the largest wave of commune building in American history. These people were involved in turning away from politics, away from bureaucracy, and toward a world in which they could change their consciousness. They believed small-scale technologies would help them do that. They wanted to change the world by creating new tools for consciousness transformation.” Then on the influence today: “It varies depending on the company. Apple is, in some ways, very cynical. It markets utopian ideas all the time. It markets its products as tools of utopian transformation in a countercultural vein. It has co-opted a series of the emblems of the counterculture, starting as soon as the company was founded. At other companies, I think it’s very sincere. I’ve spent a lot of time at Facebook lately, and I think they sincerely want to build what Mark Zuckerberg calls a more connected world. Whether their practice matches their beliefs, I don’t know. About ten years back, I spent a lot of time inside Google. What I saw there was an interesting loop. It started with, “Don’t be evil.” So then the question became, “Okay, what’s good?” Well, information is good. Information empowers people. So providing information is good. Okay, great. Who provides information? Oh, right: Google provides information. So you end up in this loop where what’s good for people is what’s good for Google, and vice versa. And that is a challenging space to live in.”

Jean-Pierre Dupuy in “The New Data Science” brilliantly explains there is no data science. Science is about causes, data are more about correlations which can not really help in predictions (I hope I understood his message!). Let me quote one sentence: “The ideology that accompanies big data, meanwhile, announces the advent of new scientific practices that, putting the theoretical requirement in the background, endanger the advance of knowledge and, more importantly, undermine the foundations of a rational ethic.” Really brilliant!

Le bonheur, une idée neuve dans les entreprises ? (selon France Culture)

(Sorry I was too fast, this should have been posted on the French version… where it is also now. For non French-speaking readers, this post is about new management techniques that were born in Silicon Valley…)

J’étais invité ce matin à débattre des méthodes de travail et de management (y compris “l’utilisation du bonheur”) importées de la Silicon Valley. Je mets plus bas (après les tweets) les notes que j’avais prise pour préparer cette émission

Voici les notes que je m’étais préparées.

On ne peut pas mettre dans les même paquet tous les GAFAM. Tout d’abord Amazon et Microsoft qui par coïncidence ne sont pas basées dans la Silicon Valley, mais à Seattle ne sont pas connues pour un management original. Ni Bill Gates, ni son successeur Steve Ballmer, ni Jeff Bezos ne sont connus pour des styles de management innovants. Par contre Google, Apple et Facebook ont sans doute des similarités:
– ce sont des méritocraties et le travail est la valeur “suprême”, plus que le profit, au risque de tous les excès: recherche de performance, concurrence et risque de burn-out. On ne tient pas toujours très longtemps chez GAF
– on y recherche les meilleurs talents (sur toute la planète et sans exclusive, au fond le sexisme et le racisme n’y existent pas a priori)
– le travail en (petites) équipes est privilégié.
Du coup le management a innové pour permettre cette performance et reconnaître les talents (par le fameuses stock options mais aussi une multitude de services pour rendre les gens toujours plus efficaces)

J’aimerais vous mentionner 3 ouvrages (sur lesquels j’avais bloggé pour 2 d’entres eux)
– Work Rules décrit le “people management” chez Google (ils ne parlent “plus” de ressources humaines). L’auteur Lazlo Bock qui fut le patron de cette activité a quasiment théorisé tout cela. Vous trouverez mes 5 posts sur ce livre par le lien: http://www.startup-book.com/fr/?s=bock. C’est un livre en tout point remarquable parce qu’il montre la complexité des choses.

– I’m feeling Lucky décrit de l’intérieur ces manières hétérodoxes de “foncer”. Un pro du marketing montre comment Google a tout chamboulé par conviction / intuition plus que par expérience. http://www.startup-book.com/fr/2012/12/13/im-feeling-lucky-beaucoup-plus-quun-autre-livre-sur-google/

– Enfin un livre hommage sur Bill Campbell vient de sortir écrit par l’ancien CEO de Google Eric Schmidt. https://www.trilliondollarcoach.com. Comme je viens de commencer ce livre, je peux en parler plus difficilement mais il serait dommage d’oublier cette personnalité qui fut le “coach” de Steve Jobs, Eric Schmidt et Sheryl Sandberg, trois personnes majeures pour justement les GAF! Or ce Bill Campbell, décédé il y a 3 ans, fut une personne essentielle à cette culture du travail et de la performance. Ses valeurs sont décrites dans https://www.slideshare.net/ericschmidt/trillion-dollar-coach-book-bill-campbell. Bill Campbell revient de temps en temps sur mon blog pour des anecdotes assez étonnantes. (http://www.startup-book.com/fr/?s=campbell). Par exemple, chez Google on a souvent pensé que les managers étaient inutiles. L’autonomie d’individus brillants devait suffire… mais ce n’est pas si simple! – voir http://www.startup-book.com/fr/2015/09/01/google-dans-le-null-plex-partie-3-une-culture/.

A nouveau excellence des individus et travail en équipe, reconnaissance des talents à qui on donne autonomie, responsabilité(s) avec peu de hiérarchie semble être le leitmotiv… Tout cela on pas pour rendre les gens heureux, mais pour leur permettre d’être plus efficace parce qu’ils sont “heureux” au travail. “People First”. L’objectif c’est de fidéliser, de rendre plus productif, mais c’est aussi une mise en pratique de la confiance en les autres.

Alors comme je l’avais lu chez Bernard Stiegler, à toute pharmacopée sa toxicité. Les excès dans des valeurs conduisent à des abus. Trop de travail, de concurrence, de pression conduit au burnout. J’ai l’impression que la politique et même le sexisme y jouent moins de rôle qu’on pense, même s’il y en a comme partout. Quant au racisme, il me semble limité (et on est aux USA!) Le sexisme est un vrai sujet, mais je vois plus des nerds qui ont peur ou ne connaissent pas les femmes que des “old boy clubs of white men” qui dirigeraient les choses comme je l’ai lu (même si cet élément existe j’en suis sûr). La polémique sur la congélation des ovocytes chez Facebook peut être lue de manière contradictoire j’imagine. J’ai aussi abordé le sujet dans le passé, http://www.startup-book.com/fr/?s=femmes ou http://www.startup-book.com/tag/women-and-high-tech/. L’autre sujet de diversité, est plus clair: il y a tellement de nationalités dans les GAFAs et les startup en général que le racisme est dur à imaginer. Indiens, chinois surtout sont présents et jusqu’au somment (les CEO de Google et Microsoft aujourd’hui). Seule la minorité “African-American” est sans doute sous représentée et on peut imaginer que tout cela est corrélé avec le problème de l’accès à l’éducation (qui existe moins en Asie)

Voilà, c’est déjà beaucoup pour ne pas dire trop… je trouve que commencer par Bill Campbell est une manière simple et efficace d’entrer dans le sujet. Et maintenant que j’y pense tout cela est d’autant plus facilement que vous verrez que mes lectures récentes sont liées au “sens du travail” (Lochmann, Crawford, Patricot) http://www.startup-book.com/fr/?s=travail

Entrepreneurship, startups and luck : Google according to Daniel Kahneman

I offered Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman a few months ago and this morning the reader made me read pages 200-1. It’s a great lesson about how luck plays an important role in startup creation, through the Google story. So I give you below the full extract.

“A compelling narrative fosters an illusion of inevitability. Consider the story of how Google turned into a giant of the technology industry. Two creative graduate students in the computer science department at Stanford University come up with a superior way of searching information on the Internet. They seek and obtain funding to start a company and make a series of decisions that work out well. Within a few years, the company they started is one of the most valuable stocks in America, and the two former graduate students are among the richest people on the planet. On one memorable occasion, they were lucky, which makes the story even more compelling: a year after founding Google, they were willing to sell their company for less than $1 million, but the buyer said the price was too high. Mentioning the single lucky incident actually makes it easier to underestimate the multitude of ways in which luck affected the outcome.

A detailed history would specify the Google’s founders, but for our purposes it suffices to say that almost every choice they made had a good outcome. A more complete narrative would describe the actions of the firms that google defeated. The hapless competitors would appear to be blind, slow, and altogether inadequate in dealing with the threat that eventually overwhelmed them.

I intentionally told this tale blandly, but you get the idea: there is a very good story here. Fleshed out in more detail, the story could give you the sense that you understand what made Google succeed; it would also make you feel that you have learned a valuable general lesson about what makes businesses succeed. Unfortunately, there is good reason to believe that your sense of understanding and learning from the Google story is largely illusory. The ultimate test of an explanation is whether it would have made the event predictable in advance. No story of Google’s unlikely success will meet that test, because no story can include the myriad of events that would have caused a different outcome. The human mind does not deal well with nonevents. The fact that many of the important events that did occur involved choices further tempts you to exaggerate the role of skill and underestimate the part that luck played in the outcome. Because every critical decision turned out well, the record suggests almost flawless prescience – but bad luck could have disrupted any one of the successful steps. The halo effect adds the final touches, lending an aura of invincibility to the heroes of the story.

Like watching a skilled rafter avoiding one potential calamity after another as he goes down the rapids, the unfolding of the Google story is thrilling because of the constant risk of disaster. However, there is an instructive difference between the two cases. The skilled rafter has gone through the rapids hundreds of times. He has learned to read the roiling water in front of him and to anticipate obstacles. He has learned to make the tiny adjustments of posture that keep him upright. There are fewer opportunities for young men to learn how to create a giant company, and fewer chances to avoid hidden rocks – such as a brilliant innovation by a competing firm. Of course there was a great deal of skill in the google story, but luck played a more important role in the actual event than it does in the telling of it. And the more luck was involved, the less there is to be learned.”

Progress and Innovation according to Arthur Lochmann

Magnificent book again, La Vie solide (The Solid Life) by Arthur Lochmann that comes at the right moment when France asks the question of repairing the frame of Notre Dame. Starting on page 182, he makes a brilliant analysis of heritage and innovation. He talks about duration and time, which immediately made me think of all the activities I took years to master (venture capital, research on startups, more personal hobbies on Street Art). Without duration, no mastering. Here are my last (translated) excerpts from this beautiful book.

At the other end of the spectrum wriggles innovation. In a few decades, this has replaced the idea of progress in public discourse. The success of the rhetoric of innovation is one of the most palpable expressions of the phenomenon of acceleration of time in modern space. Today we speak of disruption to denote radical innovations that have the effect of breaking existing social structures. As Bernard Stiegler puts it in a recent work [1], this disruption has as an operating principle going faster than society without giving it time to adapt. […] As the author summarizes, for the “lords of the economic war […] it is a question of going faster than societies to impose on them models that destroy their social structures”. How not to go crazy: this is the subtitle of this book which focuses on the effects on individuals and social groups in the nihilist desert that is born of these constant mutations.
The physicist and philosopher Etienne Klein compared the conceptions of time that underlie notions of progress and innovation respectively. Progress, a structuring perspective since the Enlightenment, is based on the idea of a constructing time, “an accomplice of our freedom”. The future is credible and desirable; it is this that allows us to make sacrifices of personal time now to make possible a better collective future. Innovation, on the other hand, projects a completely different conception of time: it is corruptible, it damages things. This was already the case before the Enlightenment, especially for Bacon, for whom the notion of innovation meant the small modifications necessary to preserve the situation as it is. This is again the case today, in a slightly different way: facing the ongoing climate catastrophe, who is still able to imagine any future? In short, innovation is the notion that has taken the place of progress when it has become impossible to think of a future. Like heritage, but in an inverted way, it’s a form of immobilization in the present. In short, heritage conservation and the cult of innovation are two aspects of one and the same thing: the abolition of duration by the advent of a time that has been left out. [Pages 185-7]

“A liquid society is one in which the contexts of action of its members change in less time than it takes for the modes of action to freeze in habits and routines,” wrote Zygmunt Bauman in La Vie liquide (The Liquid Life) [2]. In the capitalism of innovation, every day brings new changes. Social structures, as well as friendly and loving bonds, have lost their former rigidity to become fluid. Everything is always going on and time is running out to be a present without perspective. The paradoxical effect of acceleration is the petrification of time and the erasure of duration. [Page 191]

It is no coincidence that the figure of the craftsman has seen in recent years a return to grace, both on the side of social criticism by a Richard Sennett or by a Matthew B. Crawford and with enthusiasts that are the makers of the fablabs or the “firsts of the class” in reconversion. First of all, because the craftsmanship is very alive and constantly shatters the apparent opposition between tradition and modernity. On a construction site, there is no choice between old techniques and new ones. There is always a clever mix of each other. The practice of the frame, in particular, teaches us that being at the forefront of modernity does not mean giving up centuries-old techniques. The knowledge of the past is not outdated; it is enriched by new methods of work, and sometimes even by older ones that are rediscovered. [Pages 193-4]

[1] Bernard Stiegler, Dans la disruption : Comment ne pas devenir fou ? Paris, Les liens qui libèrent, 2016.
[2] Zygmunt Bauman, La Vie liquide, translated by Christophe Rosson, Paris, Albin Michel, 2013, p. 7 (modified translation)

Augmented humans, diminished humankind – From Alzheimer’s to transhumanism, science serving a mercantile and hegemonic ideology

Following a recent post about critics of technosciences and a much older one about the failed promises of science, here is a very short post about a (very good) book written in French and not (yet) translated in English: Homme augmenté, humanité diminuéeD’Alzheimer au transhumanisme, la science au service d’une idéologie hégémonique mercantile (Augmented humans, diminished humankind – From Alzheimer’s to transhumanism, science serving a mercantile and hegemonic ideology.)

The author begins with his personal story, how his mother suffered and died from this terrible Alzheimer’s disease. Then he began to inquire about it and his doubts began to grow. We do not have to agree with everything author Philippe Baqué says, but we cannot avoid having the same doubts about where and how science and innovation drive us all. I hope these three short extracts will create the same reaction I felt:

[Page 71] Jean Maisondieu, a psychiatrist and author of Crépuscule de la Raison, la maladie d’Alzheimer en question (Sunset of reason, Alzheimer’s disease in question), often claims that Alzheimer’s disease does not exist, but the Alzheimer’s patients do exist for sure.

[Page 74] I reached the conlusion that patients are demented mostly because they were dying of fear, at the idea of death. The brains of Alzheimer’s patients might be altered, but these patients are mostly sick of fear.

[Page 260] I feel the need to ask the question again: what is transhumanism? An economic and political lobby? A technoreligion? A new eugenic ideology? The biggest science fraud of the 21st century?

Worth thinking about it… Is aging a disease? Is death a disease?