As LearningLeaders grows, I find myself asking myself a lot of questions: What should our priorities be right now? What large-scale changes are happening in the environment around us that will affect our business? What can we do to improve the experience of Partners at LL? The experience of the students? The parents? How best to organize our flows of capital to prudently invest in the future? What is going to change? What is not going to change? And so on…
Recently, thanks to current global zeitgeist, these questions are juxtaposed quite a bit with the role of government in society. Needless to say, a massively broad topic. Though the role of government is being hotly debated right now all over the world. Will the authoritarian rise of China continue unabated? Is it actually a better system? Will the western liberal democracies fade out in their growth? What will happen to the Eurozone? The Euro? Will Australia’s government be able to steer the country through the impending currency crisis and maintain a quarter-century of economic expansion? Will South American and African countries fall into the arms of the Chinese? Sovereignty, rights, and the interconnectedness of all countries’ governments are daily above-the-fold reading.
I can’t possibly tackle a single one of those questions with any degree of certainty, though it really has me thinking about the role of ‘government’ at LearningLeaders. That is, the operating system of management that we leverage to reach the best outcomes for our students. What is the best government (management) system and how will it change over time?
Looking back at the 19th and 20th centuries in the United States (the country’s history with which I am the most familiar), I’d argue the most important technological innovations and social innovations happened when government allowed for mistakes to happen but also provided cushion when they did. The role of the state (in the U.S.) was incontrovertibly necessary in creating new industries that shaped both the rise of the U.S. and today’s global order. Think - railways, electrification, aviation, automobiles, automation, information technology, mobile computing, banking, and of course, military innovations. In every case, the government backstopped early-stage investors and in fact invested (with time and dollars) in these industries to help them grow.
The government also allowed mistakes to happen. Through failure and failure and failure and iteration and iteration and iteration did these industries actually improve. In today’s parlance, we are seeing the same with privatized space craft, electric cars, and artificial intelligence. Some mistakes are impossible to come back from. The overwhelming majority aren’t. From what this armchair historian can tell, the role of government in technological innovation was to finance early-stage ventures, allow space for innovation to happen, and get out of the way of motivated and informed groups of people who passionately tackled those issues.
Under a cohesive banner and direction, that doesn’t mean that every idea is approved or ‘funded’ or given the go-ahead. Saying yes to every idea would be impossible. The government, as an entity, and also as representatives, needs to say no 100 times as often as they say yes. Requests for funding, time, attention, and social or political capital fall on the desk hourly. Only the ideas with the most potential can be sponsored.
How to define those ideas? It’s impossible to know ahead of time whether the assets used for funding are going to be productive. No. One. Knows. For. Sure. There is market risk, technology risk, personnel risk, and delivery/execution risk in every project the government or management sponsors. Further, groups proposing innovative projects for the same funding of time and capital are inherently going to reach loggerheads. There exists a finite amount of time and in that sense, there may become a zero-sum game. The pioneers innovating in the artificial intelligence space likely think the government is misguided with any tax breaks for medical marijuana. The biotechnology industrialists similarly think that the government writing a check to underwrite electric batteries at A123. No one can understand every piece of the puzzle. And yet bi-partisan support for funding bills is nearly impossible to reach.
I’m bullish on a distributed and decentralized management and governmental system at LearningLeaders, provided that every node in the network is able to selectively focus on their areas of relative expertise. The system breaks down when one of two things happen: 1) actors believe their projects and needs require prioritization in all cases, and/or 2) actors actively work to sabotage others’ projects, progress, or trust within the networks.
For the good of the organism, whether country or company, neither of these can be tolerated. They both lead to the ‘local maxima at expense of global maxima’ phenomenon. Local optimization problems are simple for engineers, but global optimization problems are inherently more difficult to manage. Having your project sidelined or paused for a period of time should not be taken personal affront. Rather, there exist trade-offs that are made for every project. In this case, you might disagree with the call. But the call has been made and life goes on.
Focus is required for freedom to work. The responsibility to deliver is required for authority and autonomy to make decisions to continue. As long as we deliver the goods, LearningLeaders will remain an environment that is hands-off enough to allow for mistakes and at once present enough to help you correct and learn from them.
Big ideas need space in which to grow.