Friday, July 29, 2011

Innovating in a culture of consensus

decision making processes  “Consensus culture and team work water down innovative ideas to a level of being just incrementally relevant.”

This was the core of an email I received yesterday from a creative friend working on new research.  It’s a provocative charge – I shared  it with colleagues over a partners meeting today and it generated a lot of discussion.

On one side are those who see consensus as inertia.  In an environment that minimizes business risks, consensus among many specialist gatekeepers has to be achieved before any new product can be branded and shipped to customers.  To minimize their  personal risks, each avoids sins of commission in favor of sins of omission: a decision that goes bad is punished more severely than the negligence of not making a decision.  Together, a consensus culture who’s objective is to minimize risk can result in a conservative culture that resists product or process innovation.

Even though individual department heads may encourage innovation, they can only do so within their own pond.  Once they reach out into the organization, the same politics hold.  This is true of efforts to translate new ideas from research to development, to cross-fertilize ideas among operating divisions, or to replace an established product with a next-generation version. 

Consensus cultures resist change.

But others held that the process of reaching consensus is what drives innovation: a generative discussion leads to truly breakthrough ideas.

Take the famously consensual Dutch poldermodel?  The process seems to work differently here: there’s an argumentative engagement that drives examination of alternatives until a ‘best’ opinion emerges.  Once that is agreed, then they execute aggressively.

I’ve had the same experience in startups, where friends debate the merits of different approaches, arguing the alternatives and prototyping competitive versions (a “demo or die” process).  We’re in a vigorous exchange now about whether the product should be a “one-box” or a “two box” solution, then whether to make the connections wired or wireless.  The decisions demand arriving at a consensus decision, not a compromise solution: we won’t make two boxes that can be joined as one.  We must do one or the other (or neither).

Consensus cultures promote innovation.

Make no bad decisionsSo, the difference between a consensus culture that can innovate and one that can’t lies, paradoxically, in the willingness of colleagues to engage in open and adversarial debate of alternatives.

This still differs from a straight adversarial approach in that there is mutual respect for differing points of view, a openness to evaluate evidence in spite of bias, and a willingness to put practical gains ahead of ideological positions.  Without this, there’s only the ‘winner-take-all’ result that has afflicted the decision-making process in governments.  Straight power politics, like conservative consensus, is no basis for innovation.

Thursday, July 28, 2011


Peach ZabagleoneA cool dessert is in order on warm summer evenings, so I decided to experiment with zabaglione, an Italian custard served with fruits and white wine.  (If you’re French, I gather it’s called sabayon, although that may be slightly different?).  The Evening Standard had a recipe that looked simple enough (I’ve cut this version in half and made a couple of practical adjustments):

125ml Marsala 
4 tbsp sugar
2 under-ripe peaches, peeled and cut into eighths
3 egg yolks

Put 50ml of the Marsala and a quarter of the sugar into a frying pan and bring to a boil over a medium heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Add the peaches and cook for 5-10 minutes, shaking occasionally to prevent them catching on the bottom of the pan, until the peaches are soft and the Marsala is syrupy. Divide the peaches among six serving glasses and set aside.


Put a saucepan of water on to boil. Meanwhile, put the egg yolks and remaining sugar in a mixing bowl and whisk for five minutes until light and creamy. Turn the water down to barely a simmer and place the mixing bowl containing the egg yolk and sugar mixture on top. Continue to whisk, adding the Marsala in a slow, steady stream. Whisk for a further 10-15 minutes, until the zabaglione has doubled in volume and is the palest of yellows.


Divide the zabaglione between the peach glasses; serve hot or cold.

The first part, softening the peaches and reducing the Marsala to syrup, works really well and gives a nice, rich blend of flavors. 

The custard has turned out to be a bit more tricky.

  • Doing it by hand, with 15-20 minutes of vigorous whisking involved, the job is simply tiring. As studies have shown with rescuers performing manual chest compressions, strength and enthusiasm flags after about five minutes.  The result is a limp custard.
  • Switching to a mixer, I get a nice froth, but no body.  The volume doubles nicely and the heat fives it some firmness, but the result seems to get a bit too light., almost a foam.
  • If I turn to perform another task for a few minutes, interrupting the beating, then the froth collapses to something that is more like loose scrambled eggs, especially if I refrigerate to save it for dessert later.

Whipping also seems to drive off the alcohol – there is a much less pronounced Marsala flavor leaving just sugar and egg.  I tried adding the wine later in the process, but this seems to complicate the texture.  On the other hand, with hand whisking, the custard seems too sharp: I’d be tempted to add a little vanilla to take the bite of the wine.

I generally give three passes at any recipe to try to get the technique right and to learn how to blend and balance the ingredients. In this case, successive passes did not improve on the results.  Until I can try some professional-quality Zabaglione on a future trip south, I’m afraid I can’t recommend this recipe (but I’d love to get some alternatives of how to improve the recipe).

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Flikken Maastricht

flikken maastricht 1

Now in its fifth season, Flikken Maastricht is a Dutch police drama filmed, where else, here in Maastricht.  I have to admit that I was slow to catch onto this show; the occasional film crew or river chase didn’t tip me off.  Now, it’s sort of fun to watch the CSI-style adventures passing through the familiar streets until they turn a corner and, well, it’s some other street than what is supposed to be there.

I’m specially fond of this clip, which features Adam Curry’s girlfriend Micky Hoogendijk.  The terrace cafĂ© where the scene is filmed is about 30 feet from my apartment window (I think the police camera may be in my living room).

Flikken Maastricht (from my window)

Monday, July 25, 2011

How much work is a startup?

I sat down with a friend today, mint tea and conversation on an otherwise wintery summer day.  We catch up about family, kids, my trip back to the US, their home improvements.

  “And, how are the businesses going?”

Overall, well:  We’re funded, we’re getting good laboratory results, the strength of our investor and development teams grows by the day.  I’m doing more operations and less fundraising, and the money problems that dominated work and life for the past six months are receding.

But, you know, it’s a lot of work.  I’m at my desk, on the phone, mid-morning until late in the evening.  This is the big chance, maybe my only chance, and I absolutely want to make the most of it.  Every day is a step forward, but every step brings an assessment of opportunities, tasks, and priorities.  And every day is another step:  The to-do list waxes and wanes but never empties.

Ironically, I’m in Europe is for the opportunities to travel, experience cultures, to learn, to meet people.  Increasingly I don’t do any of those things: my world is gradually narrowing to just work.  Day by day I get out less, do less, associate less.

And that can’t be good.

Do you actually want to start a startup? What it amounts to, economically, is compressing your working life into the smallest possible space. Instead of working at an ordinary rate for 40 years, you work like hell for four. And maybe end up with nothing-- though in that case it probably won't take four years.

During this time you'll do little but work, because when you're not working, your competitors will be. My only leisure activities were running, which I needed to do to keep working anyway, and about fifteen minutes of reading a night. I had a girlfriend for a total of two months during that three year period. Every couple weeks I would take a few hours off to visit a used bookshop or go to a friend's house for dinner. I went to visit my family twice. Otherwise I just worked.

Paul Graham, How to Start a Startup

It’s really true.

Well, most of it is really true…

People shouldn’t do startups if they are over 38.  I don’t think many people have the physical stamina much past that age. I used to work till 2:00 or 3:00 AM every night, seven days a week. I don't know if I could do that now. Also, startups are a big risk financially. If you try something that blows up and leaves you broke at 26, big deal; a lot of 26 year olds are broke. By 38 you can't take so many risks.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Evenings with Andre

DSC05118Violinist Andre Rieu played for his hometown base this weekend, bringing his orchestra, singers, and dancers to the Vrijthof Square.  The gates that normally protect the seating in the square itself have now extended over the adjacent cafes as well, so it’s much harder to see details of the sets or the performance.  The performers have always been generous about setting up free big-screen relays across town, so it’s easy to get a seat and a drink to enjoy the show.

I caught up with the crowd at Sint Amorsplein, a triangular- shaped plaza in the middle of the old shopping district a couple of blocks from the Vrijthof.  DSC05117Rows of seats had been laid out and they filled up by late evening when the performance started.  Aproned waiters passed through offering koffie, wijn, and Erlanger bier.  The video quality and sound was very good and the crowd bobbed and swayed and sang and clapped almost as though they were in the Square.  There’s a lot of affection for Andre and his troupe, I really need to pay the admission some summer to get the full-on effect of the spectacle.

DSC05124The show performs worldwide and had spent some time in South Africa this year.  Sunday’s show featured gospel singers that I think had been part of that show, including some brilliant female soloists.  The European and African singers shared various religious songs from across cultures, although there were sometimes incongruous combinations that I wasn’t sure fit together. 

I made me wonder to what extent the contrasts reflected differences in underlying beliefs or only differences in expression.  Certainly, the medleys encouraged listeners to see the commonalities between the cultures, styles juxtaposed and harmonized.  But does that presume too much universality, even in religion?  It was also hard to tell whether the soloists were native singers or classically trained: they had vocal range and control, a stage presence different from the roles that they wee cast into.

I’m probably asking too much of an evening’s light entertainment, and Andre always delivers an engaging and well-paced show.  The twilight gathering was fun and I always appreciate his willingness to share the music and the color with everyone.