Insights Into Innovation: Peter Thiel’s “Zero to One”

Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future Peter Thiel, Blake Masters

Peter Thiel’s Zero to One claims to be about startups, but that is too narrow a view of its value. Thiel explores the challenges of creating the risky new in an environment that prefers safe repetition. Startups are the favored example in today’s entrepreneurial environment, but we can all benefit if organizations learn to actually do the innovation they profess in their PR.

Zero to One is a book that bears rereading; there are insights throughout that are crisply expressed and presume that the reader is willing to think. I was hooked early on with this observation in the preface:

The single most powerful pattern I have noticed is that successful people find value in unexpected places, and they do this by thinking about business from first principles instead of formulas.

One of the values of the book is the focus on the difference between creating something new—going from zero to 1—and imitating or scaling an idea after it has been dreamt up. The U.S. is probably better than almost anywhere else at rewarding true innovation, yet most of us prefer the safety of copying someone else’s success.

One of the arguments Thiel develops is teasing apart whether we are optimistic or pessimistic about the future from our views about whether that future is “definite” or “indefinite.” Can we control what emerges tomorrow by what we do today? Or, are we at the mercy of a random and unknowable future? There’s an important insight here about striking a good (as opposed to the “right”) balance between having a definite perspective and adapting to new information as it becomes available. It isn’t a binary choice; like all important leadership challenges it’s about balance and perspective.

There is value in nearly every section of this book. Here, for example, is a list of seven questions that let you evaluate an idea for its entrepreneurial potential:

  1. The Engineering Question: Can you create breakthrough technology instead of incremental improvements?
  2. The Timing Question: Is now the right time to start your particular business?
  3. The Monopoly Question: Are you starting with a big share of a small market?
  4. The People Question: Do you have the right team?
  5. The Distribution Question: Do you have a way to not just create but deliver your product?
  6. The Durability Question: Will your market position be defensible 10 and 20 years into the future?
  7. The Secret Question: Have you identified a unique opportunity that others don’t see?

Elsewhere, you will benefit from Thiel’s musings on why you would just as soon avoid competition and opportunities to disrupt existing markets. Throughout Zero to One, Thiel hammers and chips at why the rules for going from one to many, which dominate conventional MBA programs and wisdom, are, at best, irrelevant and, more likely, misleading if you focus instead on creating something new.

If you’ve managed to create a billion dollars of value, you’re pretty much guaranteed a book contract. Whether you have anything useful to share in that book is a separate question. Thiel’s value creation skills extend to intellectual as well as financial capital. He’s clearly reflected on his experiences in a systematic way and we benefit.

Defining Characteristics of Wicked Problems

I’m just wrapping up a course I’ve been teaching at DePaul’s School for New Learning on Understanding Organizational Change. I’ve grounded the course in a view of organizations as dynamic systems from the perspective of Jay Forrester, Donella Meadows, and Peter Senge. In the last few sessions, we’ve also been discussing the notion of Wicked Problems and the challenges they present in today’s organizational environment.

I introduced the following list of “defining characteristics of wicked problems” drawn from The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices: The Reality of Managing Complex Problems in Organisations. I’m not yet finished with that book, although it is excellent so far. I’ll post a review when I’ve finished it. Here is their list:

  • There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem. In other words, the problem can be framed in many different ways, depending on which aspects of it one wants to emphasise. These different views of the problem can often be contradictory. Take, for example, the problem of traffic congestion. One solution may involve building more roads, whereas another may involve improving public transport. The first accommodates an increase in the number of vehicles on the road, whereas the second attempts to reduce it.
  • Wicked problems have no stopping rule. The first characteristic states that one s understanding of the problem depends on how one approaches it. Consequently, the problem is never truly solved. Each new insight or solution improves one s understanding of the problem yet one never completely understands it. This often leads to a situation in which people are loath to take action because additional analysis might increase the chances of finding a better solution. Analysis paralysis, anyone?
  • Solutions to wicked problems are not true or false but better or worse. Solutions to wicked problems are not right or wrong but are subjectively better or worse. Consequently, judgements on the effectiveness of solutions are likely to differ widely based on the personal interests, values, and ideology of the participants.
  • There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem. Solutions to wicked problems cannot be validated as is the case in tame problems. Any solution, after being implemented, will generate waves of consequences that may yield undesirable repercussions which outweigh the intended advantages. (Offering Britney Spears a recording contract is a classic example).
  • Every solution to a wicked problem is a one-shot operation because there is no opportunity to learn by trial-and-error, every attempt counts significantly. Rittel explained this characteristic succinctly, with the example One cannot build a freeway to see how it works.
  • Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions. There are no criteria that allow one to test whether or not all possible solutions to a wicked problem have been identified and considered.
  • Every wicked problem is essentially unique. Using what worked elsewhere will generally not work for wicked problems. There are always features that are unique to a particular wicked situation. Accordingly, one can never be certain that the specifics of a problem are consistent with previous problems that one has dealt with. This characteristic directly calls into question the common organisational practice of implementing best practices that have worked elsewhere.
  • Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem. This refers to the fact that a wicked problem can usually be traced back to a deeper underlying problem. For example, a high crime rate might be due to the lack of economic opportunities. In this case the obvious solution of cracking down on crime is unlikely to work because it treats the symptom, not the cause. The point is that it is difficult, if not impossible, to be sure that one has reached the fundamental underlying problem. The level at which a problem settles cannot be decided on logical grounds alone.
  • The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem s resolution. In other words, a wicked problem can be explained in many ways with each explanation serving the interests of a particular group of stakeholders.
  • The planner has no right to be wrong (planners are liable for the consequences of the actions they generate). Those who work with wicked problems (town planners, for example) are paid to design and implement solutions. However, as we have seen, solutions to wicked problems cause other unforeseen issues. Planners and problem solvers are invariably held responsible for the unanticipated consequences of their solutions.

Culmsee, Paul; Kailash Awati (2011-12-02). The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices: The Reality of Managing Complex Problems in Organisations (Kindle Locations 2759-2839). iUniverse. Kindle Edition.

The Joy of Stats available in its entirety

I’ve been a  fan of Hans Rosling since I saw his first TED video several years ago. Here’s a four-minute clip from a one hour documentary,The Joy of Stats , he did last year for the BBC.


Hans Rosling helps visualize economic development over the last 200 years

You can now find the entire video from the BBC by way of Rosling’s Gapminder website. I certainly wish both Rosling and this technology had been available when I was doing my undergraduate degree in statistics. I did have the benefit of excellent teachers, although none quite as gifted as Rosling. As for what the technology makes possible in terms of both extracting and explaining the stories hidden in the data, it is well and truly a brave new world.

Bruce Schneier’s insights on tomorrow’s privacy environment

Bruce Schneier is one of those disciplined, articulate, thinkers you should be paying attention to if you want to navigate sensibly in today’s digital world. Here’s a brief example from a recent EastWest Institute Cybersecurity Summit.

I’d also recommend his blog, Schneier on Security.

Hans Rosling at TED India: making time visible

I’m turning into a bit of a Hans Rosling groupie, having blogged about several of his previous performances at TED conferences (Hans Rosling talk on world economic development myths and realities and More insights from Hans Rosling at TED 2007). Most recently, he presented at TED India. He’s a wonderful story teller and watching his material is its own class in better story telling. Watching his videos is one of those great twofers you get from the best teachers – insights into both his material and his technique. Here he takes a look at what the deep data trends have to tell us about Asia’s economic future.

Hans Rosling: Asia’s Rise – How and When – TED India


A version of the tool that Rosling uses for his data analysis and display is available at Gapminder World.

Resources for organizations developing social media policies

While my own preference would be for a policy of "Don’t be stupid," that’s unrealistic for most organizations. I’ve recently been collecting examples of policies from various organizations. If you know of other examples, please let me know in the comments

  • Online Database of Social Media Policies
    Here’s a site that has collected social media policies from a growing list of organizations. Looks to be an excellent resource
  • The FASTForward Blog – Eight Issues to Consider in Your Enterprise’s Internal Social Software Policy: Enterprise 2.0 Blog: News, Coverage, and Commentary
    Tech Republic recently posted on 10 things you should cover in your social networking policy. There has been a lot of discussion on this topic, including my prior post, Social Media Policy Guidelines Can Encourage Use Outside Enterprise and Adoption Within. Like most policy discussions I have seen, this one focuses on social software use on the Web. However, it remains no less importance for effective enterprise 2.0 adoption to have guidelines that also cover usage inside the enterprise. I think the ten points are very useful and eight apply to internal use, some more than others.
  • 10 things you should cover in your social networking policy | 10 Things |
    As sites like LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook become intertwined with business uses, organizations need to establish guidelines for employees on workplace access and appropriate usage. Deb Shinder looks at 10 key considerations that such guidelines should address.
  • SAP Social Media Guidelines 2009 | SAP Web 2.0
    The following guidelines describe private, individual participation in social media channels such as Facebook, Twitter, personal blogs, forums, YouTube, Flickr etc. for SAP employees. If your job requires you to be an SAP evangelist in social media channels and you have questions, or you want to establish social media channels on behalf of SAP or an SAP group, contact the SAP Social Media Group by sending a mail to [redacted]. For any other questions about social media at SAP, please visit the SAP-internal SAP 2.0 Community.
  • RightNow social web employee policy | RightNow
    These are the official guidelines for social computing at RightNow. If you’re an employee or contractor creating or contributing to blogs, wikis, social networks, virtual worlds, or any other kind of social media these guidelines are for you. We require all who participate in social media on behalf of RightNow to be trained, to understand and to follow these guidelines. Failure to do so could put your future participation and employment at risk. RightNow has an open participation policy for all employees. The choice to participate in social media is yours. If you decide to participate, you are making a commitment to following these guidelines.
  • Intel Social Media Guidelines
    These are the official guidelines for social media at Intel. If you’re an Intel employee or contractor creating or contributing to blogs, wikis, social networks, virtual worlds, or any other kind of social media both on and off these guidelines are for you. We expect all who participate in social media on behalf of Intel to be trained, to understand and to follow these guidelines. Failure to do so could put your future participation at risk. These guidelines will continually evolve as new technologies and social networking tools emerge so check back once in awhile to make sure you’re up to date.
  • Sun Microsystems Communities: Sun Guidelines on Public Discourse
    Many of us at Sun are doing work that could change the world. Contributing to online communities by blogging, wiki posting, participating in forums, etc., is a good way to do this. You are encouraged to tell the world about your work, without asking permission first, but we expect you to read and follow the advice in this note.
  • IBM Social Computing Guidelines
    In the spring of 2005, IBMers used a wiki to create a set of guidelines for all IBMers who wanted to blog. These guidelines aimed to provide helpful, practical advice, and also to protect both IBM bloggers and IBM itself, as the company sought to embrace the blogosphere. Since then, many new forms of social media have emerged. So we turned to IBMers again to re-examine our guidelines and determine what needed to be modified. The effort has broadened the scope of the existing guidelines to include all forms of social computing.

Webinar with Clay Shirky: Preview of FASTforward’09

Clay Shirky

Image via Wikipedia

I’m looking forward to meeting and hearing Clay Shirky at the upcoming FASTforward ’09 conference, even if it is happening in Las Vegas. I’ll be attending in my role as one of the contributors to the the FASTforward blog. I’m being lazy and simply passing along the notice posted by Hylton Jolliffe there.

Please join us next Tuesday, January 27th, at 2:00 p.m. ET for a webinar with a name surely familiar to followers of this blog Clay Shirky, the keen commentator on all things Internet and author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations .

Clay, who ll be a keynote speaker at FASTforward 09, will explore topics of great interest to us all: the effects of open networks, collaboration, and user-created and disseminated content on organizations and industries and the need for enhanced solutions that meet today s new information management challenges.

To reserve a spot for the webinar, please register here.

And to find out more and join us in Las Vegas for FASTforward 09 from February 9-11, head to the conference s website. The contributors to this blog will all be there as will a host of other interesting participants such as Charlene Li and Don Tapscott.

Find out more and register today!

Webinar with Clay Shirky: Preview of FASTforward 09
Hylton Jolliffe
Wed, 21 Jan 2009 16:03:40 GMT

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Technology Leaders Association presentation

I’m presenting today to the Technology Leaders Association meeting in Chicago on the topic of “Technology for Us.” I’ve uploaded my slides to Slideshare.



I’ve also tagged a number of links at delicious; both of sites we may check out and references to follow up materials. Those links can be found here.

links for 2008-10-01

  • The Contribution Revolution: Letting Volunteers Build Your Business – An excellent executive introduction to the business implications of social media and user generated content by Scott Cook, CEO of Intuit. Nothing terribly new here if you’ve been paying attention to the social media environment at all. On the other hand it summarizes and packages the concepts in a way that helps legitimize it in a C-level executive context
  • The Contribution Revolution / FrontPage – Scott Cook and Intuit have created a wiki to accompany Cook’s recent article about social media and user contributed content in the Harvard Business Review. It’s goal is to become another resource for making sense of this area.

  • Online Book Study Group Formed for Your Inner CEO

    Earlier this year, I reviewed Your Inner CEO, by Allan Cox. In the course of that, I’ve actually had the pleasure of meeting Allan and getting to know him. I think it was Ross Mayfield of SocialText who introduced us. Allan is an existence proof that nice guys can be very successful.

    One of the things I’ve been helping Allan with is understanding how new technology tools can help him get his ideas out there. One thing we’ve come up with is to make use of the great social media tools at Ning to support a community of those interested in the ideas in the book and in Allan’s work. To wit, here’s an announcement from Allan of an online book group for the book.


    Greetings, READERS!

    A few people in the Your Inner CEO Community (yes, there is one) have been lobbying for the launch of an online study group for the book itself: Your Inner CEO. In the beginning I wondered about the practicality and