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Every Revolution Needs To Anticipate Its Own Counterrevolution

2024 March 3
by Greg Satell

In 1954 the economist Paul Samuelson received a postcard about an obscure dissertation. Written in 1900 by a long forgotten mathematician named Louis Bachelier, it implied that market behavior could be predicted using statistical techniques. Based on that foundation, Samuelson pioneered a new era of financial engineering.

As the eminent sociologist Max Weber pointed out, while material interests govern people’s conduct, ideas act like switchmen, determining the tracks that we travel down. Samuelson’s discovery of Bachelier’s paper was a moment when the track was switched. If markets could be engineered, the thinking went, they could be trusted.

We need to be careful about the stories we accept. Once the switchman changes those tracks, a zeitgeist forms and the wheels of society turn to keep the train going. We begin to judge progress on how far and fast we can get the train to go, rarely questioning whether we are on the right track or how we got started in that direction. Inevitably, we miss the backlash.

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We Need To Embrace The Genius Of The Obvious

2024 February 25
by Greg Satell

I’m currently reading Bob Sutton and Huggy Rao’s new book, The Friction Project, which is really a breath of fresh air. I was particularly struck by one passage in the beginning in which they write, “Friction fixers pride themselves in being masters of the obvious. They are mighty skeptical of secret solutions, shocking surprises, and miracle cures.”

It’s a simple truth that humans crave status and taking on an air of sophistication is one way to attain it. We have an urge to inject complexity, to make the case that we see something others don’t. This isn’t a moral failing, but as Will Storr explains in The Status Game, an integral part of how people relate to each other and signal identity.

So the first step toward embracing the genius of the obvious is to recognize that it isn’t something we naturally do. We tend to look for interesting stories involving complex phenomena behind things in our lives, which is why superstitions and conspiracy theories catch on. It takes effort and expertise to filter out complexity and expose the simple core.

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Why GE’s Incredible Turnaround Could Be A Sign Of The Times

2024 February 18
by Greg Satell

When Jack Welch took the helm at General Electric in 1981, it marked the beginning of a new era. Corporations would no longer coddle workers, but would slash costs, close factories and focus on increasing shareholder value. By 1999 he had increased revenues from $26.8 billion to nearly $130 billion and in 2000 he was named “Manager of the Century” by Fortune magazine.

Yet all the success belied serious problems rumbling underneath the surface. As David Gelles explains in, The Man Who Broke Capitalism, Welch increased profits largely by “financializing” the firm and operations suffered. Under his successor, Jeffrey Immelt, GE collapsed and was removed from the Dow index.

Yet while Welch’s rise marked a new era of shareholder capitalism, the new CEO at GE, Larry Culp has taken a different turn. He invests in workers, distributes authority and has refocused the firm on improving manufacturing productivity. The result has been one of the most dramatic turnarounds in industrial history, perhaps signaling a larger shift.

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How “True Believers” Can Undermine Change

2024 February 11
by Greg Satell

Journalist and Puck co-founder Tina Nguyen has been doing the rounds to promote her new book, The Maga Diaries, that chronicles her rise through, as well as her retreat from, the right-wing media ecosystem. What she describes is a carefully constructed culture that identifies, indoctrinates and then promotes ultra-conservative media personalities.

Yet these efforts are prone to failure. As MIT economist Daron Acemoglu and his colleagues have shown, in their effort to create homophily, these types of echo chambers undermine critical thought by creating filter bubbles and diminishing access to information, which makes it hard to be relevant to a wider audience.

The truth is that lasting change is always built on shared values. We can’t just preach to the choir. We need to venture out of the church and mix with the heathens. The best way to identify shared values is to listen to those who oppose what you’re trying to achieve. If you only interact with those who agree with you, you are undermining your own efforts.

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If You Want To Tell A Compelling Story, Do These 3 Things

2024 February 4
by Greg Satell

There’s a great, although perhaps apocryphal, story about Franz Kafka and a little girl. The relatively unknown author—he wouldn’t achieve great fame until after his death—met a young girl who lost her doll. Kafka helped her look for it, but to no avail. The doll was lost forever and the girl was heartbroken.

But then Kafka told her a story. The next day he brought her a letter from the doll. “Please do not mourn me, I have gone on a trip to see the world.” Kafka would bring her letters telling her of the doll’s adventures. He eventually bought her another doll and gave it to her with another note that said, “my travels have changed me.”

As the story goes, after Kafka’s death the girl found another letter hidden in the replacement doll that said, “Everything that you love, you will eventually lose, but in the end, love will return in a different form.” We can’t all write like Kafka, but with a little bit of knowledge and some practice, we can all learn to tell stories that give meaning and purpose to our messages.

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We Need To Rethink The Myth Of Macintosh And Xerox PARC

2024 January 28
by Greg Satell

When people like to tell stories of historic corporate missteps, the story of Xerox and the Macintosh is near the top of the list. As the tale goes, the corporate giant spent a fortune to create all the technology that the famous computer was based on, but failed to market it and let Steve Jobs steal it out from under them.

But that version leaves out important context. Yes, Xerox did create the technology. It was also true that Steve Jobs, while touring the company’s research facility, understood that he could use it to make a revolutionary consumer product. But it wasn’t a blunder. Steve Jobs was there because Xerox had invested in Apple at bargain prices, not because they were tricked in some way.

The story has deeper implications, because the myth of Xerox’s blunder influences how firms invest in technology. The truth is that Xerox’s research strategy was visionary and incredibly successful. In fact, it likely saved the company. So rather than looking at the story of Xerox and the Macintosh as a cautionary tale, we should see it as a model to replicate.

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4 Things That I Learned About Change From The Orange Revolution

2024 January 21
by Greg Satell

In 2004, I joined a KP Media, the leading news organization in Ukraine, where I would become Co-CEO. In the runup to the presidential election that year, the opposition candidate for president, a technocratic reformer named Viktor Yushchenko, was poisoned by pro-Russian agents. He survived, but his face was permanently disfigured.

In that moment, the once mild-mannered banker was transformed into an inspirational leader. His opponent, an almost cartoonish thug named Viktor Yanukovych, tried to falsify the election. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians poured into the streets to protest in what came to be known as the Orange Revolution.

It was very much an awakening. That was the moment when Ukraine, although not yet ready to turn away from Russia, began to insist on its independence and freedom, something that Vladimir Putin wasn’t willing to respect. It was also a turning point for me. It would permanently change how I saw the world and how it works. Here are four things I learned.

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Why Truth Matters

2024 January 14
by Greg Satell

In 2012, when Marco Rubio was gearing up for a run at the Presidency, he sat for an in-depth interview with the magazine GQ to bolster his image. “I think the age of the universe has zero to do with how our economy is going to grow,” he proudly declared. “I’m not a scientist. I don’t think I’m qualified to answer a question like that.”

The attitude belies dangerous ignorance. The big bang is not just a theory, but a set of theories, including general relativity and quantum mechanics that underlie modern technologies such as computers, GPS satellites, lasers and solar cells, just to name a few. Our economy literally could not function without them.

As Vannevar Bush famously wrote, “There must be a stream of new scientific knowledge to turn the wheels of private and public enterprise.”  Yet today we get “alternative truths” and book bans. Make no mistake: truth matters. History shows when we abandon the quest for discovery and design narratives to suit our preferences, the consequences tend to be severe.

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2024: A Pivotal Year

2024 January 7
by Greg Satell

There was big news in Somalia a few weeks ago. The country’s President, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, had passed enough reforms to qualify for debt forgiveness by the IMF and the World Bank, re-enter the global financial system and join into the East African Community, an important regional block.

Yet few noticed. With war raging in Ukraine and Gaza, as well as complete disarray in the US Congress, progress in a troubled country in the Global South doesn’t warrant much attention. While the global economy—especially in the US—seems to have recovered from the shock of the pandemic, I can’t remember when there has been so much chaos.

Last year I wrote that we would see a shift of focus from disruption to resilience and that’s largely been true. It’s hard to imagine anyone would argue for shaking things up more than they are now. The question for 2024 is what comes after? It’s fairly clear that a new world order is emerging, but not at all clear what it will look like. Our future lies in the balance.

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Top Posts Of 2023

2023 December 24
by Greg Satell

My friend Stephen Shapiro does not like New Year’s Resolutions. “According to our study, only 8% of Americans say they always achieve their New Year’s resolutions,” he writes. “The way it seems to work now, setting a New Year’s Resolution is a recipe for defeat. It has come to be one of the nation’s most masochistic traditions.”

He suggests that we replace resolutions with broader themes by thinking seriously about what we want to achieve in the year ahead and what we want to focus on. What do we want to do more of and what do we want to do less of? What will make us happier and more productive? A good theme should feel empowering not guilt ridden.

I find the same can work in reverse. By reflecting on the year that has passed, certain themes arise and my ritual of going through my top posts of the year is a great way to reflect. When I look back on what I wrote and what people read, it helps reveal things about the past year that weren’t obvious in the thick of events. Take a look and see what emerges for you.

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