Category Archives: Economics

The Lean Startup – Eric Ries

“It’s moving leaders from playing Caesar with their thumbs up and down on every idea to—instead—putting in the culture and the systems so that teams can move and innovate at the speed of the experimentation system.” – The Lean Startup

Regular readers will note I’ve been offline for a while – my apologies.

Say you have 100 envelopes to address, stuff, and seal. What do you do? Most people would address them all, fold them all, seal them all, etc. Sadly for most people, this is wrong. It is actually faster to do them one at a time! (there is video evidence, honest). Why? Because moving 100 envelopes around is cumbersome, and takes time. Rather than moving piles repeatedly, it’s better to do them in a small batch. Doing them step by step may improve individual performance, but the system performance is bad. In fact, even if it took the same amount of time, the usual method is risky. What if you address all 100 envelopes, and realize the letters don’t fit?

What’s the point? Businesses should do the same. Rather than coming up with an amazing idea, building huge factories, developing vast numbers of the product, and selling them all at once, companies should try to be in continuous deployment. They should be releasing dozens of small changes per day and testing them on small groups of consumers.

The defining feature of a startup, says the Lean Startup, is uncertainty. They aren’t sure who their customers are or what they need. As a result, the key resource is information. Startups must therefore focus on learning above all else. To do so, they need to experiment, try new things, and piece together an awareness of what their context is all about. From that insight, all else in the book flows: that startups should have fast cycles, small batches, develop minimum viable products, etc.

It’s a powerful insight, and one that firms, governments and individuals are usually terrible at. Even in our own lives, it probably doesn’t make sense to come up with a single huge master plan. Rather, we should try new things, experiment, and see if they work for us. If we do, we can do more. If not, we can do something else. Life, as with startups, is all about learning.

Overall, I’d highly recommend the lean startup. A powerful insight into life and business.

We don’t make Widgets – Ken Miller

“Government is a bunch of hardworking people, trapped in dysfunctional systems, who produce invisible things for people who do not want them, on behalf of others who do, for reasons we rarely articulate and can hardly measure.”

Most government employees—perhaps most employees, these days—would say they don’t make widgets. They provide services, help others, and answer questions. Fair enough. But, says Ken Miller, they have the wrong idea of widgets. An answer can be a widget; so can a service. A widget is anything created by work which can be given to someone else to achieve a desired outcome.

Ken Miller outlines three myths that hinder the improvement of government. One, governments don’t make widgets; two, governments don’t have customers; three, governments aren’t there to make a profit. In a literal sense, these are all plausible. Believing them, he argues, can also prevent government from learning and improving.

If everyone is making widgets, everyone is a plant manager. The analogy, says Miller, can provide useful insights, regardless of whether it is literally true or not. If a widget plant is to improve, it must make widgets better, make better widgets, or make new widgets that lead to better outcomes. The same three areas are where government can improve. Those three things are also the key areas to measure. Every manager needs to know how good their process is, how good their product is, and whether they can make better products to better meet the needs of their customers.

The analogy can sometimes be taken in the wrong way. Serving customers isn’t the same as doing whatever they want: Ford doesn’t give away free cars, even though customers might want them to. In the same way, having oil companies as customers doesn’t mean doing what they want. It means acting in the interests of shareholders, in this case taxpayers, and regulating them for the benefit of all.

The book is short, clear and compelling, a summary of how the private sector perspective can benefit governments. Of course, that isn’t the end of the story, and such a perspective can also go too far. Government is different from the private sector. Innovation, however, comes from interdisciplinary work, and both government and the private sector can benefit from studying the lessons of the other.

The Innovator’s Dilemma – Clayton M. Christensen

“The logical, competent decisions of management that are critical to the success of their companies are also the reasons why they lose their positions of leadership.” – The Innovator’s Dilemma

The Innovator’s Dilemma is simple. ‘Good’ companies, ones that maximize investment returns and listen to their customers, are harming their future prospects. Why? Because to stay on top, you need to innovate, but customers don’t want innovation: they want what they’ve always gotten. To innovate, you need to find new customers, try new things, take on risks, but ex-ante those risks can seem unreasonable or unwise.

The Innovator’s Dilemma argues that many business miss disruptive technologies. They do so not because they aren’t able to produce them, but because their current customers didn’t need or want the new product. When a smaller 5.5 inch hard drive was introduced, the major market for hard drives was users of supercomputers. They cared about power, not size. A well-managed firm in the traditional sense would have listed to their customers and not sold 5.5 inch drives.

It is left to a small firm to find a new market for the product, and indeed such a small market is only really profitable for a small firm. Of course, in the long run such small markets can grow, as did the one for 5.5 inch drives when it sparked the development of the laptop.

Are large firms doomed? No, says Christensen. Innovation requires focus, and it has to be essential to the existence of the organization to succeed. The answer is often to set up a small organization for whom the innovation is their core business, at let if flourish.

A challenge Christensen doesn’t address is how to identify which technologies are disruptive. A large firm can hardly set up a spinoff for every possible idea that crosses its desk, but it isn’t easy to know which will succeed in advance. That said, the book is and remains a classic on innovation, and if excessively long in some parts, it is focused on an important challenge for firms big and small.

The Fix – Jonathan Tepperman

“At a time when most of us have glumly concluded that our governments are broken and our domestic and international problems are insurmountable, I aim to show how the right individuals can overcome the most intimidating obstacles–if they follow the right strategies. This book makes a data driven case for optimism at a moment of gathering darkness…One of the basic premises of this book is that while the details of all the troubles currently wracking the world vary, they share an underlying cause: the failure of politicians to lead.”

The Fix introduces ten big problems, and ten countries or places which have successfully overcome them to flourish. Not all solutions can be transplanted or last for the long-term, of course, but they provide ideas and inspiration to the rest of us. The ten are:

  1. Inequality – Lula in Brazil with his Bolsa Familia (Cash grants to the poor)
  2. Immigration – Pierre Trudeau in Canada (Intentional multiculturalism)
  3. Islamic Extremism – Indonesia (Rehabilitate terrorists, and co-opt their agenda)
  4. Civil War – Rwanda (Village-level court system to sentence those involved in the genocide)
  5. Corruption – Singapore (strict penalties, systemic changes, and high pay for officials)
  6. Resource Curse – Botswana (Establish good institutions first)
  7. Energy – U.S. Shale gas (Strong property rights)
  8. Middle-Income Trap – South Korea (Use crises to strengthen the system)
  9. Political Gridlock (International) – Enrique Pena Nieta in Mexico (in the first part of his term, at least – bargain with everything on the table so can trade in reciprocity)
  10. Political Gridlock (U.S.) – Bloomberg’s fight against terrorism in NYC (Get the data and do the right thing)

The book is great fun. It’s well written, in a clear, informal style, and the author clearly had fun researching and writing it. His list is in some ways notable for what it omits—global warming does not appear, I suspect because there are no countries that have cracked it—but for all that they are still ten big problems. Some of his solutions I doubt will work elsewhere, or at least will require completely reformulating, but they remain interesting and very relevant.

Disclosure: I read The Fix as an advance reader copy. You can read reviews and order your own copy here: The Fix.

The Personal MBA – Josh Kaufman

“Instead of trying to absorb all of the business information that’s out there–and there’s a lot out there–use this book to help you learn what matters most, so you can focus on what’s actually important.”

Want to be a guaranteed millionaire? Save $10 a day for forty years at 8% interest. Not something that comes up in many MBAs, but actually quite interesting when you think about it. Two lattes a day, and retire a millionaire! Though, 8% is pretty optimistic these days. Anyway.

MBAs are expensive. Really expensive. So expensive, you might wonder if it’s really worth it. For Josh Kaufman, the answer is usually not, unless you’re hoping to work for an investment bank, lead a fortune 500 company, or be at a top management consulting firm. Too many modern MBAs focus largely on finance, which is relevant in those settings but not if you want to, say, actually run a business.

In response, Kaufman has done his best to distill the many business books he has read to some concrete lessons. The ‘Personal MBA’ is a process of reading one hundred best books on business he recommends, focused on how business actually works. What are the key parts of any business? How do you find a grow a business idea? What are the three universal currencies (resources, time, and flexibility)?

Overall, the Personal MBA is excellent: it does a great job distilling concepts into bite-sized pieces, and it is well-written and clear. It stumbles a few times—some of the bite-sized pieces are so small as to be basically useless, and the risk of a personal MBA is that you don’t realize where you’ve misunderstood, so a few of his explanations are not quite correct—but if you’re looking for a clear, concise, and well-written introduction to a wide selection of business concepts, it’s a great resource.

Understanding Variation – Donald J. Wheeler

“Businessmen are finding that while they have more numbers than ever before, they still do not know what these numbers mean.”

“This book was written to help organizations overcome the effects of numerical naivete.”

Understanding Variation is a classic in understanding and measuring how businesses work. Its key lesson is that things vary. When we see that trade is down in February compared to last year, it’s tempting to assume that means something. The media will certainly report it as such, but we really don’t have any reason to do so. For that data to be meaningful would require that last year be ‘normal.’ I’m not sure that’s ever happened.

Variation is a significant challenge for businesses. If a business has bad results one month, should it make changes? Wait? Ignore it? There are no hard and fast rules, though entire disciplines have arisen over what type of results mean something (see: Six Sigma). Even good managers fall victim to regression to the mean: when they see results that are worse than average, they reprimand the employee, and things get better! Of course, when they see good results, they reward the employee, and things get worse. Managers learn to always be mean, rather than the true lesson that things can’t permanently stay above or below average.

Wheeler presents a few key rules, including that no data have meaning apart from their context, and that to detect a signal, filter out the noise. Much of the book, however, focuses on laying out tools that can help businesses identify meaningful variation. Wheeler swears by the control or XmR chart, a time series combined with a graph showing the size of the change each period. It means you can track both level and variability simultaneously, and look for significant changes in either.

The book is a bit outdated now, but the lessons ring true. Variation was and remains a challenge, and one it is far too easy to neglect.

What is Government Good At? – Donald J. Savoie

“The requirements of contemporary politics and deficiencies in public administration explain in large measure why government is not as good as it once was or needs to be in several areas if it to enjoy the support of citizens.” – Savoie

Our governments do an enormous amount of work on our behalf, and many of those things they do reasonably well. They are also under tremendous strain. Below the ‘fault line,’ says Savoie, operational employees focus on serving Canadians. Above it, however, political pressure forces civil servants to play the blame game, responding to crises rather than getting things done. The problem, he argues, is that the culture of the public service has focused power and prestige above the fault line. Below it, there are fewer and fewer resources and results.

Donald Savoie is a Canadian expert on public administration, and has strong opinions about how governments are and should be run. Despite the name of the book, its focus is mostly on why governments do things badly. If you make it to the last fifty pages, Savoie highlights that governments are best at tasks with wide public appeal or at least comprehension (such as a war), that are visionary in nature (such as going to the moon), and at dealing with wicked problems (largely because no one else can). Useful points, and it’s a shame he didn’t explore them earlier, rather than retreading arguments he has made in other books.

Savoie has a strong position, but I find some of his statistics hard to interpret. He mentions, for example, that 60% of civil servants are effectively back office, doing policy or other work that doesn’t involve dealing with Canadians directly. He roundly condemns this, but I’m not so sure. Is that good? Bad? A number of his statistics are impressive, but hard to interpret.

The book is on an interesting question, and if the title is a false promise, the content is still interesting. A useful work to read and reflect on, but if you were hoping to learn what government is good at, you’ll be disappointed.

Practical Performance Measurement – Stacey Barr

“ Performance measurement shouldn’t be a post-mortem; it should be a health plan.”

Performance measurement (PM) is oft-maligned: organizations see it as useless or a waste of time when they should focus on results. What many miss is that without clear evidence and data on progress, it can be hard to deliver results, or even know when you’ve delivered them. Performance measurement may well be unnecessary when things are going well, but it’s hard to know if they’re going well or not without it.

Stacey Barr developed what she calls PuMP: the Performance Measurement Process, with an extra ‘u’ thrown in to make it easy to pronounce. In the book, she runs through an 8-step pilot to implementing the process in an organization. The method places heavy emphasis on using PM for improvement, not accountability: if you punish people based on what is measured, you’ll end up with useless measures, she points out.

The book is well organized and useful. A few points needed more defense or explanation: her rejection of brainstorming because not all the ideas it produces are good felt more like a PR move than a well-considered argument, and her espousal of XmR graphs as a way of reporting performance seemed overly strong as well. Since the book’s purpose is partly salesmanship for her course, that may play a role.

The key lesson from the book is engagement. Several of the 8 steps in the pilot are about getting buy-in from the organization and ensuring others feel ownership: without engagement, she argues, performance measures will be ignored at best, and more likely rejected out of hand. I suspect she’s right in that: for any process that is that embedded in an organization—including PM but also HR, IT management, and others—if it remains the project of only a few people it will not lead to the culture change necessary to provide results and maximize impact. A lesson more of us could learn.

Wiser – Cass Sunstein and Reid Hastie

“In this book, we begin with a simple question: Do groups usually correct individual mistakes? Our simple answer is that they do not. Far too often, groups actually amplify those mistakes.”

If you want to find out how an appellate judge will vote about an ideologically connected case, many of us would check if they were appointed by a republican or democrat. That’s a pretty good predictor. But in many areas, there is an even better predictor: who appointed the other two judges on the panel?

Being in a group affects what decisions we take. That much is clear. But should we take a decision alone or with a group? Both methods seem to work in some situations, and not work in others. In Wiser, Sunstein and Hastie set out to explore the difference.

In general, using a group does two things. It increases the cost of making the decision, because all group members have to be consulted and negotiated with: and it reduces the cost of errors, because it means the group can aggregate wisdom and ideas to minimize expensive mistakes. Or at least, that’s the theory.

In practice, groups can help or hinder. At their worst, they can amplify the errors of some of their members, get trapped in groupthink, become more polarized and extreme without become more correct, and focus only on shared information rather than the key information only some members possess. Perhaps the biggest concern is happy talk: group members go along with the consensus or say nothing is wrong, instead of providing new, sometimes critical, information. Good group design—red teams, giving equal voice to members, and other simple methods—can minimize these costs.

At their best, groups can guess how many jelly beans are in a jar. Groups are good when you need to forecast an unknown result, whether a presidential election or the number of jelly beans: they can aggregate opinions and if everyone is slightly off, the final result can often be very close because the average minimizes the individual errors.

Though Wiser discusses these themes at length, it is short on clear lessons, and indeed the book itself can feel repetitive or meandering. It is an interesting idea, and an important subject, but not as well or as clearly explored as I would have liked, making it hard to distill or learn from.

Simpler: The Future of Government – Cass R. Sunstein

This book is “about how governments can be much better, and do much better, if they make people’s lives easier and get rid of unnecessary complexity.” – Simpler

Regular readers will have noted I haven’t posted for several weeks – my apologies. I have just started a new job, and the adjustment period for getting up to speed has taken some time. It’s been busy! I am hoping to start getting back to a regular review schedule, however.

In the spirit of being busy, however, I thought I’d start with Simpler. The book’s point is an obvious one: we would be better off if the world was a little less complicated, and governments should do their part to help. Where it gets difficult, of course, is in the details.

Simpler opens with the charming story of Sunstein’s first date with Samantha Power, his future wife (and yes, the U.S. ambassador to the UN): when she asked him what his dream job was, he dreamily admitted it was to lead OIRA, the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs at the White House. Not everybody’s dream job, but one he would end up having under Obama, overseeing the creation of regulations across government.

The book is a collection of the lessons Sunstein has learned serving in government and approaches he adopted at OIRA to improve regulation, from retrospective analysis to cost-benefit studies. He argues that governments fail to make things simple, whether because they neglect it to focus on other things, because they believe it doesn’t matter, or because they don’t realize that the laws they pass are not, in fact, simple. Adding simplicity can increase compliance, make people’s lives better, and ensure that the best possible policies are passed.

Unfortunately, simplicity is generally an uncontroversial good; the challenge is doing it, not wanting it. As a result, the book spends quite a bit of time discussing nudges, the subject of Sunstein’s last book, and it doesn’t add much to what was written there. I would have preferred more time spent on some of his experiences as head of OIRA trying to simplify, both successes and failures. The elephant in the room is also that many of Obama’s laws are not exactly simple: for all the benefits of the tools he argues for, alone they aren’t enough to enable simplicity.

Sunstein is clearly right. Simplicity is good, and the more we can base policies on evidence the better. If you already believe that, I’m not sure this book will push your understanding farther, and if you don’t, I suspect you won’t read the book. If what you want is a a brief overview of some useful regulatory approaches—experiments, retrospective analysis, cost-benefit, and others—then the book is not a bad place to start, however.