Big Think Interview With Alan Webber
Alan Webber is the cofounding editor of Fast Company magazine and was the editorial director and managing editor of the Harvard Business Review. He has worked in federal, state, and local government, writing speeches and focusing on innovative policy initiatives, and is the author of Rules of Thumb: 52 Truth for Winning at Business Without Losing Your Self.
Question: How do we spot an inflection point?
Alan Webber: That’s such a great question because you’re right, the assumption is this must be what change feels like. I’m not sure about the question how do you know whether we’re in the middle of massive change or is this what massive change is supposed to feel like. We have a kind of a dashboard of change in our heads, in the way we receive information in daily conversation, in just the way we make sense out of the world. And when you see massive economic shifts, when you see people suddenly having to abandon long held standard ways of acting, when the old model doesn’t work anymore, you pretty much have to assume that this is what a transition period or what Andy Grove used to call an inflection point feels like.
And his definition of an inflection point; he was applying it to companies but he said that it’s that moment in time when the old assumptions and the old rules don’t apply anymore and if you simply keep doing what you’ve always been doing, you don’t get the same results and in fact, you get worse results. And so you’re a diagnostician and you’re looking at your company or your career, your country, the world you live in, and the vital signs that used to be able to be depended on for a certain set of frequencies or data points coming back to you aren’t coming back the way they did, number 1.
And number 2 then, the interventions that used to be enough to return them to what we would consider normalcy of the status quo don’t work. So you don’t get predicted results from predicted interventions and that’s a pretty good sign that the game is changing and that the old rules don’t quite apply the way they used to.
Question: How can we make the most of this current moment of change?
Alan Webber: Well, it’s only that I’m a different person which is probably the same thing ‘cause the world we experienced and make sense of is a conversation with the world and it’s not all just data but I think you’re right.
I wouldn’t quibble but; little more information about what was going on with my head in 1995, I had been to Japan in 1989 courtesy of the Japan Society of New York. I’m not sure if you remember the name Ezra Vogel but Ezra wrote “Japan as Number One,” Harvard Professor, brilliant sociologist and Japanafile. And he had nominated me for this fellowship to go to Japan at the peak of the Japanese bubble when Japan was buying up America, we were worried about our competitiveness, that was when the auto industry was threatened yet again or for the first time, so I spent 3 months over there and when I came back I sort of sounded like all those people who go to another country and come back and say, “I’ve seen the future and it works.”
I saw the future of competition, of business, of work, of technology and I came back with a perception that the world was profoundly changing, that globalization, technology, generational shift, and a shift in a kind of human capital how you create value, was going to change the world.
Globalization wiped away boundaries in national terms, technology wiped away boundaries in terms of how information can travel, generational shift meant people were no longer worried about putting food on the table, they were interested in how do you make meaning with your life, it was a generation that wasn’t brought up in the Depression, was brought up in plenty and so took, pretty much for granted, that we could make a living, the question was how do you make a difference.
And then a shift in, a kind of a, demographic composition, women, minorities, people who are not white men are suddenly running the world and playing key and important roles. And that was really the origin of Fast Company and what is the same today, I think, is a kind of a, not to be brutally book pluggish about it but when I started writing back then without even knowing it or knew rules of thumb for how the world was going to work.
Today, I would say the new rule of thumb, if I were going to start a project that was Fast Company-like, the rule of thumb is if you want to change the future, you have to change the conversation and that’s what you’re all about and that’s what your project is all about, that’s what Big Think is all about, can we get the voices of our time in all different spheres and zones of activity, engaged in a conversation that will ask new questions reflect differently on the moment we’re in and in the process of changing the conversation, change the trajectory of public and personal events. That to me is the work of the moment, that people are worried about will America, will the economy get through this problem? I’m convinced that we’re going to get through the problem, the questions are will we learn anything from it, will we have the kinds of dialogues and platforms for dialogues where we don’t just reflect on the moment of change but how to arrive at the end of the moment of change, having learned something that’s really worth learning.
Question: How do you start small to achieve big things?
Alan Webber: The way my mind works is I have an experience and I try to extrapolate from it what I learned. The think big start small lesson was really taught to me by Muhammad Yunus. I was in Sweden to interview him, ended up spending about 3 days just glued to his side, soaking up his wisdom.
At one particular moment, he was in a group conversation with students at a very interesting school called The Chaos Pilots, it’s a school for social entrepreneurs in Scandinavia, headquartered in Aarhus, Denmark branch in Stockholm and other places and he was addressing the students. And they were all were young, smart, committed, bright young people, men and women, and they all had a question on their minds that they were a little embarrassed to ask and finally one woman gave voice to the question and the question was, “I look around the world so much needs changing, where do you think I should start?” And Yunus told the story of the Grameen Bank but the punch line was start with whatever is closest at hand, don’t think you’re going to change the world, think I’m going to help one person, that’s what he did with the Grameen Bank, it’s a famous story now, he’s told it so well and so many times.
A woman sitting in her front yard, weaving furniture and yet in poverty, she obviously has skills, she’s obviously working and yet she’s impoverished, how can this be? And when he found out more, he found out about a loan shark and effectively the woman was a wage slave and he had to do something about it.
So what I wrote in “Rules of Thumb” was Muhammad Yunus didn’t get up that morning committed winning the Nobel Peace Prize, he didn’t get up that morning even committed to started the Grameen Bank, he saw a woman suffering and he could not help her. And so the tendency in venture capital circles in American big, powerful, type-A personality circle is to say, “Think big, start big, get big or go home. If you can’t get big, don’t bother. Scale is everything.”
And Yunus’ lesson is: that’s completely wrong, start with something you can do, start small, touch a person, fix a specific problem, if it works, keep on doing it, if it doesn’t work, try something else but start, do it. Don’t just delay because you can’t solve all of the problems at the same time.
Topic: Explain your rule, “When the going gets tough, the tough relax.”
Alan Webber: Well, it’s a reminder to myself and to anyone who reads the book that when you’re engaged in a difficult, challenging, for aspirational enterprise, your biggest enemy is fear. It’s not the exercise of the activity, it’s not the work itself, it’s a climate of fear and there’s an awful lot of it in the world of business for sure, that people could do so much more in their work life with their own dreams, their own hopes, if they weren’t afraid. If they weren’t afraid of failure or embarrassment or appearing to ask a stupid question, the particular anecdote that that rule comes from happen when I was competing to be the managing editor of the Harvard Business Review.
And my little personal scheme to do is to go interview world leaders with the gambit, the kind of management gambit of what’s it like to run a country not a company. So I had some relationships with the German Marshall Fund and wangled an interview with Helmut Schmidt and I got over to Germany ready to embark on this interview and just before he walked into the room, I realized that my mind was completely in the wrong place, that I wasn’t preparing for a positive interview, I was scared out of my mind about screwing up the interview and that I was letting my own personal fears and tape recording in my head and my insecurities about am I smart enough for this?
Will he laugh at me?
Will he put me down for asking stupid questions?
Because Helmut Schmidt had a bit of a reputation of a guy who was disdainful of the press and never thought that the questions were smart enough for him. Here I am a young guy competing for the top slot at the Harvard Business Review, what if I screw it up? What if I didn’t do a good job? What if the tape recorder malfunctions? And all of these demons in my head were playing with me sitting there waiting for Helmut Schmidt to walk in the room. And at that moment, I had a kind of an epiphany which was, wait a minute, this is a great opportunity, this is what I want to do, this is something I worked hard to get to, why am I so fearful? Why not relax? Why not enjoy the experience? If it fails and I don’t get the top job at the Harvard Business Review, at least I would have had a great experience.
At least, I’ll be happy the way I’ve conducted my self and I won’t be failing before I even try so; it was just a memo to myself that fear is the enemy, it’s true for people who aspire to be entrepreneurs or who are simply worried about what’s going to happen in a down economy, will I find a job?
Will I be able to put food on the table?
I’m graduating from college or university, what would my future be?
Well, those can be either fearful questions or adventuresome questions and not to be too Pollyannaish about it, your attitude does determine how you perform. Fear has a way of defeating you before you even start so when the going gets tough, the tough relax is pretty much what I wrote at the top of my yellow tablet when I was going to interview Schmidt and it pretty much stayed with me since then.
Question: What is Megan Smith’s rule?
Alan Webber: Megan Smith’s Rules, yeah. Megan Smith is this remarkable, to my way of thinking, very self effacing woman who I had a chance to spend some time with in San Francisco at an event that Stone Yamashita Partners put on for the Japan Society bringing together innovators from the United States and Japan and Megan was there on the room.
Now, all of them are bright and interesting people and Megan was kind of standing against the wall, listening carefully but not trying to interject herself into the middle of the discussion and I was standing right next to her trying to monitor the conversation and see how is saying what and she was listening to what people are saying and out of nowhere she said, “Well, here’s how I think the world works, here’s what I think is going on.
Number one, the customer participates, new game. Customer is not a passive actor but participates in all of your enterprises.
But number two, it’s beyond that the customer is actually driving so if you use the metaphor of a car you think you’re in charge, no, you’re in the passenger seat, the customer’s driving and you have to let go and let them drive the car so that they actually be willing to go with you otherwise they’re going to get out of the car and go somewhere else.
So the customer participates is kind of table stakes, the customer is in charge is the reality and the third rule was open systems beat close systems.” And I wrote that down and immediately captured that ‘cause I thought, okay, if you want to play the game the new way, you want to be in the game, this is a woman who knows the rules and an awful lot of people in business, politics, you name it, the media, they think they’re still in charge, they think they’re running the game.
It’s okay to have customers but don’t let them dictate to you, it’s nice to go meet the voters but don’t actually let them set the agenda, it’s really good to have kind of a give and take but let’s remember who’s really the boss here and that way of thinking is pretty much going to guarantee you failure, it doesn’t matter if you’re in the newspaper business and you think we’re [worth] the fort to state, we control the truth or you’re running for public office and you think well, as long as I tell the voters what I think they want to hear, they’ll vote for me, it doesn’t work, it simply doesn’t work.
You really have to take Megan Smith’s Rules to heart and engage in a fresh and completely different way with the market, the voting public, your customers, even people who weren’t your customers but who have the power to comment on how you do business or how you conduct yourself. It’s a gigantic open dialogue with everybody and anybody and that reframes how you do business and it requires a kind of a fresh take, a fresh set of rules, or a fresh mindset on thinking about relationships, conversations, dialogues, open systems, there are a lot of metaphors here but we’re really describing is a fundamental change in the way you do business, the way you do your work.
Question: What are the characteristics of fast companies?
Alan Webber: I think a lot of the attributes of a Fast Company circa 2000 are still the attributes of a Fast Company circa 2009 with some new tweaks like the Megan Smith proposition that it’s great to have all these attributes but remember how you conduct yourself on top of it. We actually had a list of about 10 crosscuts that we were using or lenses that we’re applying.
Now, the other thing that I, in all honesty, you have to remember is that a notion of a fast company is kind of a mythic beast like a unicorn, there really aren’t any perfect fast companies. What we discovered was there were plenty of companies, big, small, old, brand new that had attributes, that had characteristics, they were driven by new ideas, they were committed to outthinking the competition, whether it was business model outthinking or customer service outthinking, there was an element there of applied intelligence that you could smell when you walk in the door.
On top of it, they were out implementing the competition so thinking is great but doing is the other part of the equation and one of my rules of thumb is taken from a friend of mine who used to be in the Pentagon working for the Secretary of Defense, smart Indiana guy who says knowing it ain’t the same as doing it. And so knowing that you have great business model innovation, that’s great but if you don’t do it, you’re just another guy with an idea. So we were looking at outthinking the competition, outinnovating the competition but applied innovation, we were looking at a different brand of leadership, not the old style command and control model but a more open kind of grass roots leadership, more leaders at all levels, we were looking at design sensibility and not just design a product or service but design of office space, design of interface with the public, design of your website, design of your whole model of thinking about what is a company, that’s a design issue, how do you design it? How do you deploy it?
So we had this crosscuts and I think they still apply. I think what’s changed now or what is added to the spice is; we call the magazine Fast Company, I think things have gotten even faster, the phase of change has been picked up but the stakes have changed have picked up. I was joking with my friends about my book release and saying, I’ve got to get off to a fast start, it’s kind of like, every project whether it’s a book or a new product launch, a new technology product is the same as a movie where you’re opening weekend box office results, the votes are in by the end of the first weekend how did your new iPhone app do? Oh, we got off with a bad start, we got to have to really try to overcome that because people have voted and we’re already not cool.
So the phase of voting is quicker, the edge between winning and losing is sharper and much less forgiving. We used to talk about Fast Company and I still think it’s true that we didn’t get everything right when we launched but we got enough things right when we launched that we could stay in the game and fixed the things we got wrong. I think today it’s a much less forgiving market, if you get too many things wrong, you’re voted off of the island very quickly.
Question: What’s the model of an iconic project?
Alan Webber: Exactly. The metaphor I used in the rule about iconic projects is the metaphor of Zoysia grass and that may not be familiar to everybody or anybody except me but it makes perfect sense to me. Zoysia grass used to be a very popular way of creating a lawn in the ‘60s and ‘70s, maybe nobody does it anymore where you would take a plug and put it in your lawn and let it start growing and then you would take another plug, a certain distance away and plant another plug and the plugs will start growing together and pretty soon you populate the lawn with these plugs and they weave together a new carpet, in effect.
That’s the model of an iconic project, it’s a plug, it’s not planting the whole lawn, it’s doing something that plants the seed and let’s people show how you’re thinking about your project. It stands for the larger idea but because it’s kind of immediately graspable, people can see it, they can see that it works, they can see that it has creativity built into it or thoughtfulness built into it or pragmatism built into it and then they can grasp what you’re trying to do.
It is very much like starting small, it’s the idea that showcase your thinking in a way that other people can see it, once you’ve got that then you can begin to build off of it in the larger models or scale it or add elements to it. I’ll give you an example, years ago I worked the mayor of Portland, Oregon and Portland like many cities was suffering, it’s downtown was in real trouble, stores, shops are closing and the mayor went to Seattle to visit with the Nordstrom Family and went on a mission to have Nordstrom build a new store in downtown Portland, the good news was that there’d been an extremely comprehensive planning project to drew new ideas to what would revitalize downtown Portland, a transit mall, new parks, all kinds of really visionary things but it was all vision, there was nothing to look at.
So, the thought was go to Seattle, woo the Nordstrom Family, have them build the first new department store in downtown Portland in decades, they’d agreed to do it, they put in a department store, as soon as that investment was announced, the downtown plan went from being a visionary document to a real program for revitalizing downtown Portland. One iconic project was catalyzing influence, it suddenly made the ideas believable and you could point at it and say, “Look we’re not just making this up, these people are in the retail business, they’re investing real money in the department store, they’ve got to believe or they wouldn’t do it.”
That proves our theory, there will be reinvestment and revitalization in downtown Portland. That’s an iconic project. You can’t build the downtown project, the downtown plan doesn’t get built all at once but if you could point at something that makes it real, all of a sudden, people don’t think you’re just talking about change, you’re demonstrating what change looks like.
Question: How do you recalibrate your business perspective?
Alan Webber: A little context, the genesis of that idea is not new, speaking of the tyranny of old ideas, what’s the flipside of tyranny? The benefit of old ideas, years ago, Ted Levitt, who was my mentor at the Harvard Business Review wrote; speaking of iconic things, an iconic Harvard Business Review article called “Marketing Myopia” and the premise of “Marketing Myopia” is companies have myopia, they’re blind to what’s really going on, he had a couple of great examples that I think were just wonderful then and they’re still very, very true.
He said, “The problem with the railroads wasn’t that they failed at railroading, the problem was they didn’t know what business they are in. They thought they were in the railroad business, they really were in the transportation business.”
But an even funnier example is that a company that sold tools, thought it was in the drill business when it should have been in the whole business and that reframes the whole thing, that makes you look with fresh eyes who you’re really competing against.
IBM was happy to let Microsoft have it’s operating system because it was in the computer business, Microsoft was in the computing business and the verb is better than the noun. So what we’re seeing today with a lot of companies and industries is the same struggle replayed today. What business are the newspapers in? Everybody is lamenting the death of newspapers. Well, what business is the newspaper in? Is it in news business? That’s a terrible business, news is a commodity, it’s available 24/7 now, you can have it being directly into your cellphone. A newspapers comes out once a day, it’s a really bad way to get your news so if you’re going to be in a business and print a produce once a day on paper, you better be in a different level than the news business, right? That’s not a good business to be in, you need to reframe what you’re doing. Where did you get that capacity? How do you learn to reframe? It really does require some acts of reinvention, the first thing you got to do is learn to ask different questions. If you’re content with the existing questions, how can we be a better newspaper, you’re not reframing the business you’re in, you’re simply holding on to the dead hand of the past or the tyranny of old ideas.
So you really have to be willing to let go of something before you can start grabbing onto something else, that is very hard for old, established, comfortable, privileged companies and organizations and that’s why so few industries are born out of old dying industries, it’s very hard for the buggy companies to become car companies, it’d be interesting to see if the car companies can become transportation companies. Toyota’s trying very hard because they’ve invested so much in robotics, they see robotics as replacing automobiles and personal transportation through robotics replacing a car. Well, that may work or it may not work, at least they’re working the problem, they’re trying to reframe a definition of a car company. Where do you go to get this? You got to get out of your comfort zone, you got to visit people who don’t look at the world the way you do, you got to go do weird stuff the company’s the succeeded this don’t sit in their corporate headquarters on the 14th floor looking out the window, wondering why people don’t buy their product anymore, they go visit if you’re a game company, you go visit rappers and find out what street culture is all about, if you’re the MET and you’re in the opera business, you go visit movie theaters all over America and see what people want to see that isn’t their own hometown but it doesn’t come from staying home and lamenting the demise of the status quo, it comes from going to people who are vastly different from you, who are weird, artists, poets, basketball players whatever, and seeing how they look at the world, seeing through what you’re doing to what the offering is behind it or adapting a kind of a three dimensional mindset.
So, you’re not in the car business, what’s behind the car business? Is it mobility? Is it personal freedom? Is it environmental concerns? Is it a larger sense of corporate engagement with community building? You got to change the question and you got to reframe it but you can’t do it by just talking to the same people.
Question: How do you view the ‘death of journalism’ debate?
Alan Webber: Well, what’s the old line? I have friends on both sides of this issue and I stand with my friends? That’s probably a combat. I don’t have a map to the future, I’m sorry to report, I wish I did. I know that was the only way I got this gig but I left the map in my other suit. I think you can say a couple of things with relative certainly, not about outcomes but about process.
Number one, one of my rules is we’re moving from an either or fast to a both end future and I genuinely believe that some way or another, we will have newspapers and journalism and professional journalists, people who subscribes to the rules of journalism, fact checking and balanced reporting, an attempt to get both sides of the story, an attempt to do deep digs of investigative journalism.
I don’t see any reason to believe that’s going to disappear, it may change, it may morph, it may be under invested in, it may come from different places as it comes right now, I think that’s a deep social need. Secondly, there’s a deep human need and the deep human need is for participation, engagement, checking in, connecting, that’s the technological revolution, it makes it possible for all of us to talk to each other all the time, it may get overloaded, it maybe too much, Ted Levitt used to say anything in excess is a poison, we may have to dial it down but it is true that the notion that there is a private preserve for journalists and the rest of us are consumers is completely false. It goes against Megan Smith’s Rules and it doesn’t work.
So journalists have to let go of the notion that they are the high priest of reporting and truth, they’re really valuable, they do what they do really well and we need them. We also have this public dialogue, this marketplace of interaction and discourse and personal reflection or just absolute time wasting but people want that, the human animal wants to get up in the morning and look around and talk about the weather, how their team did, how they feel, what they did last night that they shouldn’t have done.
A couple of years ago, I took a trip to Tanzania and it was safari by day and a kind of men’s group by night, sitting around the fire. And there was a tribe that we spent a lot of time with called Hadza are. For the last 70,000 years, they’ve been hunting and gathering in Tanzania and they still do it and what I observed was hilarious. The men on the tribe who was with us on this safari, this adventure, at night when we go into our tents and go to bed, they would get into a little pile near the fire and they would get really close like a puppy pile and go to sleep and then couple of hours later, one of them would move and wake up the whole group and you’d hear people coughing and lighting up smokes and moving around and checking in with each other and then the group would quiet down and they go back to sleep, couple of hours later, somebody would cough, somebody would roll over, all of a sudden is talking to each other, “Everybody, everybody okay?”
That is human behavior and it’s primal, you don’t think of it as journalism but it’s a form of journalism, everybody checking in, “You okay?”
“Yeah, I’m okay. Here, you want a smoke?”
“Yeah, okay. Everybody okay? All right, go to sleep.”
Get up in the morning, “All right, the weather isn’t so good, where are we going to hunt today?”
These are guys going out with poison arrows and bows to bring back food so it’s pretty elemental but they still check in, that’s what we’re doing.
Now, you may or may not say that’s journalism, it may be simply community interaction but we need both and we need the gossip and the deep digging in the news and the technology exists to do both, the problem is that the old business model of journalism is broken, not journalism, the business model.
So we have to detached the business model from the need for that kind of reporting, analysis, really professional stuff, reinvent a business model that gets us what we need in that zone without somehow disputing the value of all of us tribal people checking in with each to make sure we’re still okay and we’re ready to go hunting for the day. It’s not an either or choice and we have to make peace so that they could live with each other.
Question: How is Fast Company doing?
Alan Webber: Fast Company is doing well. My hat is off to Bob Safien who just won the Editor of the Year Award and the magazine is alive and well and doing good stuff and well, my hands are completely off of it so I don’t have any pride in authorship there.
To get back to, again, to nouns and verbs. Magazines aren’t interesting to me, magazining is interesting and the magazines that are doing magazining are doing well in my mind.
What does that actually mean? Well, as a reader, as a consumer of information, as a curious human being, when I pick up a magazine, I’m not looking for information, information is a commodity, just like news is a commodity, what I’m looking for is a performance, I’m looking on a take on the world, I’m looking for a point of view. One of the rules in “Rules of Thumb” is the notion that content isn’t king, context is king and the point is that there is that content is a commodity, it’s just something that you push through a pipe.
I may or may not buy it, but I certainly am not going to pay top dollar for it and I’m not going to affiliate with it, I’m not going to join the content community but if you got a point of view, if you make sense of the world in a distinctive way, if you’ve got an argument that you want to advance and engage me in, I’m interested in that. I may or may not agree with you but boy, your mind is active and alert and alive on the page and that’s something that’s worth money.
So magazining, to me, is the art of taking a position, staking out a territory, defining a take on the world, bringing your skills of story-telling and performance to an audience or participating audience that wants to engage actively in a dialogue, that’s alive and well and the publications that do that are the ones that are flourishing and the ones that are dwindling really bought into I think a kind of a Darwinian dead-end and is it’s enough to collect information and slam it between covers and now we’re authoritative or we’re the news of the week. The news of the week is very weak and it isn’t going to survive.
Question: How can we conceive of alternatives to work?
Alan Webber: We used to talk at Fast Company about the Department of Lost Souls and it’s unfortunate but true that an awful lot of people do lose themselves, they lose track of what matters to them or they never are challenged to think about it.
Speaking of newspapers and journalism, there was a terrific piece in the New York Times about a week ago about young kids graduating from business schools, I think in particular, they were looking at Wharton and this one quote just jumped out at me the way sometimes a message is just riveting.
A young woman said, “I didn’t know. Until Wall Street was no longer an option for my classmates and me, I didn’t know how interesting my classmates were.”
And that is an example of how habits of minds or assumptions or the dead hand of the past or a way of keeping score that puts money ahead of everything can scream out things that are either much more interesting or much more important, what this young woman was saying was once it wasn’t about getting the highest paying, most prestigious job, all of a sudden my classmates and I started talking about things we would like to do, things that we would enjoy doing, things that we would learn from or contribute by doing.
One guy was going to work at a jazz club, another person was going to go into social services and these are things that weren’t options when the game was winning at all cost, winning defined as whoever dies with the most toys wins. She suddenly realizes; she didn’t realize it, I read it and interpreted her realization as there’s a different game here, we can play this game with a different scorecard and a different set of values so rather than saying whoever gets the job with the biggest job title and the biggest check wins, it’s the person who finds something that really matters to them who wins, who’s able, yeah, put food on table but put meaning into their life, put something into their existence that really feels good, feels right for them, that may not be the only thing they ever do right? And this is not the vow of poverty, chastity and silence, but when the game changes to go back to where you and I started, when there is discontinuity in how you keep score or what the game even is, people are challenged to make sense a different way.
One of the ways we start making sense is not just looking externally for validation but looking internally about what really matters to me. And when you get a little bit of quiet either forced or intentional, the monkeys in your head stops chattering, the world slows down a little bit, you’re not racing after a Wall Street gig, you’re saying to yourself, that’s not on the table, what would I like to do, who do I want to be when I grow up and how do you I want to feel about what I’m doing?
Again, I don’t want to sound Pollyannaish about isn’t it great to be poor and the more people who lose their jobs are really lucky because now they can get in touch with themselves, that’s not it. But there is a pragmatism that’s very clean here and the pragmatism is I really didn’t want to do what I said I was going to do, I thought I had to do it.
Now, that option doesn’t work, what would work?
And wait a minute, what do I mean by work?
What would be workable?
What would be a good way to work?
What would be a work life combination that would really meet my needs and will be a pragmatic response to a tough situation?
So I don’t think it’s Pollyannaish to say you can be both win at your work and really be a happier or at least more engaged person who’s looking at what you’re doing with 8 to 10 hours a day of your work life and having it actually be valuable.
Question: When will we have Web 3.0?
Alan Webber: The amazing thing about web 1.0 was all of a sudden everything was available online. Information was accessible, you can get it on your terms, when you wanted it, it was permanent and instantaneous at the same time. So the notion that there is only way to deliver information into access information got blown up and space and time in real; this is not theory, we’re not talking Einstein theory, space and time fundamentally changed and it was great, it was freeing, it was liberating but it was still limited in its dimensionality, it was basically two dimensional.
Web 2.0 made it three dimensional ‘cause all of a sudden you add this component of interactivity and the customer is in charge and the customer drives and the open systems beats close systems is basically participatory, interactive, open communication dialogue, real time, personal participation in the life of information, creation, sharing, evaluation, boom. So you took something that exploded time and space and add another dimension which is your stepping inside of it.
I don’t that much about physics but what I know about physics is when you go into quantum physics, the game changes because the participant determines the outcome of the experiment, that’s web 2.0, okay? It’s no longer changing space, time, it’s reinventing reality so that the participants determines the outcome of the experiment and that blew the game open even more. What happens with 3.0, 4.0, I am waiting to see. As my friend, Keith Yamashita used to say, “Watch this space.”
It’s going to happen, I don’t know what it’ll be.
Question: How can Americans be more globally minded?
Alan Webber: It’s one of those kind of paint this full... how can you fill this canvass because it’s a requirement and yet as you know from your own experience, Americans while we talk global, we’re still very insulated and we’re still think that Democratic capitalism is a global concept that everybody subscribes to as oppose to, in some parts of the world, a huge oxymoron.
So, I would say if you’re going to aspire to be a leader in the future or today or in the future, in business, government, not for profit another one of my rules is you don’t know if you don’t go. You got to get out there and absorb it and see it and listen and participate in other parts of the world’s way of living and working and doing business, I’ve been very fortunate to get a fellowship to Japan, a fellowship to Germany, a chance to do some deep dives in other parts of the world, you just don’t experience culture shock, you experience business shock, you experience social shock, if you make friends with people in other parts of the world, your American eyes get relensed, they’ll tell you what their world is like.
I’ll give you an example, not long ago I spent some time in Sweden, I’m a huge fan of the Swedish way of life, I think they’re very generous people, I think they’re incredibly thoughtful, they have a standard of living that is terrific, and so as an American, I went in there with a lot of assumptions, biases, positive biases for the most part, but a kind of an American pair of glasses on. I started talking to my Swedish friends and they say, you have no idea what it’s like to be Swedish, there’s a code here that goes back if not years, centuries that prescribes behavior.
It’s written down, you can find it literally on the web, it says stuff like who do you think you are to be better than the rest of us, who do you think you are and be an entrepreneur and try new things? Who gave you the right to be different, better, smarter, wealthier? This isn’t how we behave, it is absolutely a sociological straightjacket that prescribes behavior, aspiration, a whole set of things that Americans, if we actually live there, would find very constraining. Where’s the freedom to be me? Where is the chance to take a risk and fail? Why can’t I dress weird or whatever right?
The Swedish culture as my friends introduced it to me was vastly different from what I was projecting onto to their canvas. So I think the job of a global citizen, never mind leader, is to get out into the world and taste it and listen, listen with open ears, don’t just project our own American biases or habits or assumptions onto other cultures whether it’s pro or con but do it, deep dive into it, listen to people who live there, get their experiences first hand and then use that to formulate a new code of conduct of how you want to be both at home and in the world, I think it opens up whole new vistas of personal conduct, business conduct, creativity, the opportunities to think in new ways or write in new ways, paint, dance, whatever your mode is, technologically to interact, they’re absolutely unlimited.
Once you get out of our straightjacket which is; well, basically, the whole world wants to be Americans, I’m sorry, it’s just doesn’t work that way anymore.
Question: What do we need to be talking about as a people?
Alan Webber: I am a huge advocate, an apostle for a new national conversation. You can make that sounds so somber and so austere that it’s a big turn-off, “Oh, we need a new national conversation, we must all be beard strokers.” That ain’t it.
I’m talking about people sitting down in their own neighborhoods, their own communities, and talking about making sense about what’s going on around us. And not being willing to settle for eco-chamber sound bytes from major media news platforms that are preaching a particular point of view or that’s okay, take that as a point of departure.
I’m taking about individuals, communities, families, business groups, professions, sitting down and using the opportunity for a cup of coffee on a regular basis or a web cast on a regular basis to stage their own talk show where they ask a new question, why are we doing this? Do you we know what we’re doing? Does it matter? Are we achieving something that contributes? Do we have the right questions here? Are we even plugged in to the right questions? That conversation, if America--and America is still the most powerful country in the world--engages in that question, exercise, that’s got a real power to it and real urgency to it. So I opt for finding a way to get that to happen whether it’s through a book project, a video project, a web engagement, however you do it, don’t be too serious, don’t be self-important, try to relax and take a breath and enjoy the ride but get into the game of talking about the future you want to create and then how would you do it, how would you go about creating it.
Recorded on: April 23, 2009
A conversation with business expert and author.
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