About Conversation Kindling

The purpose of this blog is to share stories, metaphors, quotes, songs, humor, etc. in hopes they'll be used to spark authentic and rewarding conversations about working and living fruitfully. There are at least three things you can gain by getting involved in these conversations. First, you'll discover new and important things about yourself through the process of thinking out loud. Second, you'll deepen your relationships with others who participate by swapping thoughts, feelings, and stories with them. Finally, you'll learn that robust dialogue centered on stories and experiences is the best way to build new knowledge and generate innovative answers to the questions that both life and work ask.

I write another blog called My Spare Brain. This is where I am "storing" ideas for use in future books, articles, blog posts, speeches, and workshops. There is little rhyme or reason for what I post there. I do this to encourage visitors to come as treasure hunters looking for new ways of seeing and thinking vs. researchers looking for new or better answers to questions they already know how to ask.

22 January 2010

Knowledge Arbitrage

Rich Karlgaard is publisher of Forbes Magazine. In a blog post from 2004 he said:
"Most business books are big fat bores, except for those that are skinny bores - those trite little tomes involving whales and cheese and lessons learned from kindergarten. Unless I know the author personally, I won't read a business book. If I do know the sucker, I like to drop the book on the pavement - in his presence - and back my car over it. I spent too many years reading such piffle, underlining and highlighting 'salient' points, taking notes and promptly forgetting everything I'd read within a week. Lessons from business books never stick. Much better learning tools are novels, history books and biographies. For me, at least, these can really teach. Why? I suppose it's because when your imagination is engaged, when you dig the lessons out yourself and connect them to your own life, the learning goes much deeper."
Then he named the best book on entrepreneurship, business, and investment he'd read in quite some time, and it wasn't a business book per se; it came from the field of religion. The book is The Purpose Driven Church. It was written by Rick Warren. Here's what Karlgaard says about it:
"Warren - in 1980 and from scratch - launched Saddleback Church in Orange County, Calif. Under his leadership, the church has become the fastest-growing one in America. (Saddleback is a Southern Baptist evangelical church, by the way.) Weekends bring in an average of 15,000 worshipers. Saddleback has spawned dozens of so-called daughter churches throughout the country. Were it a business, Saddleback would be compared with Dell, Google or Starbucks."
He went on to underscore some of Warren's advice for growing a church, substituting the word business for the word church as he went along. For example:
  • Don't try to make your business grow. Instead, work to make your business healthy. Because if it's healthy, it will grow.
  • Don't compete for market share. Instead, compete with non consumption. "The church [business] must offer people something they cannot get anywhere else," Warren says.
  • Full list here.
In the example above, Rich is using the simplest form of an idea that is best tabbed knowledge arbitrage; taking ideas and concepts that work in one situation and applying them to another. A second example - this one spectacular - is described in a 2007 article in The New Yorker by Atul Gawande, M.D. The article is titled The Checklist. It tells the story of how a young critical care specialist from Johns Hopkins Hospital, Peter Pronovost, borrowed the idea of a pilot's checklist - originally conceived by the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1935 - and used it as a vehicle to remind the doctors and nurses working in the I.C.U. of the steps they needed to take in order to avoid infections when putting a line such as a catheter into a patient. The results? According to Gawande:
"Pronovost and his colleagues monitored what happened for a year afterward. The results were so dramatic that they weren’t sure whether to believe them: the ten-day line-infection rate went from eleven per cent to zero. So they followed patients for fifteen more months. Only two line infections occurred during the entire period. They calculated that, in this one hospital, the checklist had prevented forty-three infections and eight deaths, and saved two million dollars in costs."
You must be a curious sort to apply the concept of knowledge arbitrage. If you are, begin by scouring the non-business landscape to find an individual, organization, or idea that has been singularly successful. You should roam far and wide. In fact, the further out you get, the better the chances you'll make a connection your competitors wouldn't think of in a million years. Here are a handful that jump out at me:
When you land on one, study its history to learn as much as you can about the reasons for its success, and then ask yourself if there is anything useful you can import to your situation.


You can do knowledge arbitrage by yourself, but it's usually much more fun and fruitful when you involve others. Here are some suggestions for working as a group.
  • Find an unusual place to hold the conversation. Use your imagination.
  • Create intentionality by working on a big problem worth solving, creating a new business or reinventing an old one, transforming your culture, or some other such thing.
  • Let the conversation create the path on which you travel. Roam far and wide, think abstractly, make up your own words, try not to use business jargon, make absurd connections, have fun, laugh, etc.
"A great thought begins by seeing something differently, with a shift of the mind's eye." - Albert Einstein
"I try to vary my reading diet and ensure that I read more fiction than nonfiction. I rarely read business books, except for Andy Grove’s Swimming Across, which has nothing to do with business but describes the emotional foundation of a remarkable man. I re-read from time to time T. E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, an exquisite lyric of derring-do, the navigation of strange places and the imaginative ruses of a peculiar character. It has to be the best book ever written about leading people from atop a camel." - Michael Moritz, venture capitalist

No comments: