Happy New Year! Ten Lessons the Last Decade has Taught me

We leave this decade changed, politically, economically, socially and more. I have reflected on ten lessons that the last decade has taught me.

  1. Democracy and economic stability should not be taken for granted. Sometime in August 2008, weeks before Lehman Brothers went bankrupt, I was in a lunch restaurant in Dubai overhearing talk about how the high-flying financiers of London, New York and the like would leave their old fashion tax-burdened democracies and find a new home in tax oasis, servant-laden ex-pat Dubai. The consensus among young professionals was that business-friendly would eclipse democracy, human rights and gender equality. Generation Gulf (a mass emigration of young highly skilled people to the Gulf) didn’t happen, but generation Trump and Brexit did. The democracy, European integration and economic system that enabled those professionals their international careers and worldliness are, in my opinion, weaker today than 11 years ago.
  2. The world realized that failure is an opportunity to learn, thanks to Eric Ries. I consider Eric Ries’ “The Lean Startup,” published in 2011, to be the business book of the decade, whose impact spans individuals, startups, large companies and even governments. During the winter of 2014, a seed phase entrepreneur in San Diego told me about the book. A week later, my team at a blue chip in Austin, Texas talked about the same book. Lean Startup Meetups sprung up all over the world. The book talks a great deal about strategy and tactics, but the big lesson Lean Startup taught the world is how to start new, innovative projects and learn from failure.
  3. Implement methods with purpose or be stuck with living dead processes. Avoid Zombie Scrum. Digitalization came. People had to do stuff better. Organizations big and small jumped on the agile train. Note Agile and Scrum (and Kanban) are not synonymous. As somebody who ran programs using waterfall, I got curious learned about agile and scrum, implemented programs with agile methods and eventually became a Professional Scrum Master and Product Owner. I discovered a Liberating Structures Meetup group, where I met lots of insightful people commit to purposeful use of methods. However, I also saw organization where people had quarterly standups, blame-game retrospectives and the like. There is no silver bullet solution for how people can work together effectively. Given the right resources, one could probably construct a mosaic of methods custom designed to each circumstance. However, a zombie mélange of different methods usually ends up in frustration, fighting and wasted money.
  4. Analytics and AI have enormous positive innovative potential, but comprehension of the results and explainability are imperatives that are too often ignored: In 2009 the global economy was hurting from the wake of the subprime mortgage crisis. The world economy seemed to be in freefall, reeling from the implosion of collateralized debt obligations and other financial instruments that most people, including many of the professionals who created them, did not fully understand. Iceland let its banks default and Icelandic citizens voted against repayment of foreign creditors. Dubai needed a bailout from Abu Dhabi. I was working on a sovereign debt rating model for a client in Dubai. The next project would be a financial contagion model on the back of Lehman Brothers’ 2008 bankruptcy for a German Bank. The international financial system seemed to have ripped at the seams. Yet it recovered. Ten years later I find myself explaining the risks of overconfidence in unexplainable AI in the financial sector (and other sectors as well). Please understand algorithms before productizing them.
  5. New technology is cool but understand how it can be governed before wanting it to become the new world order. Blockchain has many good use cases, but my jury is still undecided about distributed ledger and (vs.?) central banking. The first time I heard about cryptocurrencies was from a colleague during a meeting in Austin, Texas in 2013. Later, here in Berlin, I got to meet many crypto-enthusiasts. Some entrepreneurs had created impactful use cases for blockchain in payments, supply chain and RegTech, but I also met crypto-enthusiasts who had an “Animal Farm” flavored view of the financial system. Despite all the inherent flaws in the international financial system, I have yet to find an answer as to why crypto-currencies better are better than fiat. I have reasons to believe governance in the crypto world is probably worse than in our current financial system.
  6. What is “new work”? Flexibility, freedom, ubiquitous working, connection, virtual teams, marginalization, disconnect any and all the above. I did hard core home office, meaning working in Berlin, Germany with direct colleagues seven time zones away in Austin, Texas and managing teams and stakeholders from Sydney to Los Angeles. A face-to-face with colleagues meant a 12-hour flight. During that time, I did analysis, managed teams, managed projects, negotiated contracts, acquired clients in home office. Home office enabled me to live in the city I wanted, go to the gym and other conveniences. However, it was lonely. As an employee, I often longed for personal contact. As an entrepreneur, I knew I needed a network that did not exist in my apartment. Being a member of four different coworking spaces, I met digital nomads, professional, clients, partners and friends. Coworking has become an economic force, a network multiplier, a community center for techies, immigrants and more, built on flexibility, but also on loneliness and the marginalization of those trapped in the gig-economy.
  7. Influence is the currency of the connected economy. We might be disconnected from our neighbors, but social media has become the Main Street of our hourly lives. Influencers can be more potent than brands. Playing with toys, Ryan made 22 Million USD before his eighth birthday. The 17-year-old YouTuber Rezo angered the CDU with his video criticizing Angela Merkel, which was researched and meant as a commentary. There is a very dark side of this phenomenon. Fake news and incendiary posts have been a topic in elections. I and other people have written about social media, measuring sentiment, influence and the power the potent mix of social media and analytics on an election.  From anti-vaxxers to flat-Earthers, many people are believing easily accessed fake news faster than they can learn about science. Our challenge for the next decade is to enable professional journalism and science to outshine the trash flying around the web.
  8. Innovation is a state of mind, not an age or company form. In the later part of the decade, Berlin was filled with corporate tourism, looking at startups, seeing how they worked, searching the coworking spaces for the magic 28 year old (man) who understands technology, will think up a successful business model and can get everybody on board. Berlin is filled with forward-thinkers of all ages, which is why I love the city. Such tours are great for market research and networking, which are valuable. The truth is that often enough startups commit suicide due to ineffective ways of working. My blog about shallow innovation and the ability to execute describes execution as being the key element to the success of a startup and the ability to put an innovation into practice. Also, one can be born before 1985 and still understand, innovate, execute, etc. with new technology. Some of the most insightful people I met about uses of new technologies were baby boomers who have decades of experience adopting and implementing technological, business and process innovations. The ability to bring a good idea to market and innovate is a state of mind and finding that needle in the haystack takes perception, tenacity and appreciation for context, not stereo-typical thinking about finding the next Mark Zuckerberg.
  9. Greta trumps Paris any day of the week, but we shouldn’t get complacent. Feminism seemed to be in retreat the early part of this century. Even Star Wars got the memo. In 1999, Queen Naboo was an elected leader of a planet. By 2005 she was Anakin’s pregnant housewife who didn’t make it out of the episode alive. In 2016 Maureen Dowd accused Hillary Clinton of killing feminism. Donald Trump and his explicit recordings seemed to be a wakeup call. #MeToo rocked the web.  Greta Thunberg is strong-worded-no (little?)- make-up- female face whose voice is heard around the world. Rey is kickass, especially in this 2019 episode of Star Wars. The generation of party girls and bling seems to have given way to #fridaysforfuture, sustainability and women who want to #savetheworld.
  10. Inclusion in the true sense still alludes most societies and organizations. We need to keep this discussion going. In 2015, Angela Merkel made her famous proclamation “Wir schaffen das,“ (“We can do this”), letting Syrian refugees take asylum in Germany. The same scene that saw founders, techies and digital enthusiasts volunteer to help refugees learn skills and meet people (ie. ReDI School, Migrant Hire), produced a well-published founder who said she only hires people with whom she would go on vacation. These appear to be disconnected examples, but through my anecdotal experience, I have seen a pattern of people on one hand supporting (or not) more permissive immigration policies while in their own circles becoming narrower in the people they deem to “fit.” This pattern goes beyond work, to our personal lives and who we want occupying our public spaces. Coming back to work, managing diversity means that people who have different values i.e. because they are from different cultures can work together. It means that people with different learning styles can work on the same team and effectively communicate. Different generations can combine their perspectives. The good managers know how to build high performing teams out of difference. If any country, industry or cluster will thrive, managers will have to learn how to use everybody’s skills, not just people who are like them.

As we enter the 20s, we have progress we can be proud of, but also many challenges. I look forward to speaking with speaking and working with many of you to continue this story.

Always open to new opportunities, challenges, ideas and contacts, I invite you so reach out to me if you are interested in working together.


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