Freedom from fake work

When I ask my son to clean up at night, he’ll sometimes start putting toys into the bin at a snail’s pace. Then, when I ask him to speed up, the motions turn frantic, but the toys keep hitting the bin at the same rate.

Lots more movement. Nothing extra to show for it.

Sometimes our workdays can feel that way. We’re busy all day, but when we look back, there wasn’t much accomplished.

It gets worse when we add a dose or two of social media into the mix. Skimming that feed involves reading, processing, and writing. It feels like work. It feels productive. So it must be, right?

The most successful leaders I know are relentless at prioritization. That doesn’t mean they’re heartless or task-driven machines. A top priority may be to connect with Jim over coffee and hear about his life. But they take the time to name what’s important, what’s valuable, and what’s scarce. They’re intentional about contributing there.

This can be as simple as starting the day by listing three things you’re grateful for and naming your intention or purpose. It might mean jotting down the top thee things that must happen today.

Bringing clarity to our “musts” makes the less important pieces stand out in contrast.

What if you committed to, as much as you’re able, identifying the fake work in your day, and relentlessly eliminating it?

You have one life. In it, you get to choose how you will connect and what dent you’ll make in the world. How was today an example of the impact you want to make?

Oh, and my son? He eventually gets the room clean. And the upside to all of that extra movement? He’s tired and ready for bed!

What business are you in?

That chart above is a summary of Starbucks’ stock prices over the last few decades. Howard Schultz may be in the news for other reasons now, but a 2012 article about the Starbucks CEO/Chairman records a fascinating exchange with the head of a company that was about to embark on 7 years of growth. In it, the interviewer asks if Starbucks has lost its vision and strayed too far away from its core product. Here’s what Schultz says:

When I ask Schultz whether Starbucks might be straying too far from its core, he says, “Well, you have to ask: What is the core?” Starbucks is not a tech company, he points out, nor is it an apparel company. “We have 40-plus years of acquiring real estate and designing and operating stores all over the world. We understand how to elevate and romanticize an experience built around a beverage. And we think we can do that again on a platform of health and wellness, and elevate the nutritious value of what fresh fruit and vegetables can be in a world that is longing for educational tools to eat and live healthier.” The company can, he vows, “bring that to life in a way that has not been done.”

from What’s at the core?

If you’re at a college or university, what business are you in?

What we hear from Mr. Schultz at the front end of a series of successful launches (blonde roast, anyone?) and growth reveals that innovators don’t always answer that question in an expected way.

The standard brick and mortar residential college experience for 18- to 21-year-olds is one answer to the “what business are we in” question. But that’s not the entire market. (We know it’s a very small portion of the market). Others would say “research and knowledge creation” or maybe “accessible education for all.” Each answer defines priorities.

Regardless, the answer to the “what business are you in” question – and whether it is answered broadly or narrowly – defines focus in a way unlike any other. As we survey the current higher ed landscape, it may be time to ask better questions about the nature of our business and challenge ourselves to find new expressions and models.

It’s hard, until it’s easy

I’ve been sprinting recently toward the completion of my dissertation, and there’s one thing that’s consistently true for me in writing.

Writing is a practice with uneven returns. It’s a slog. It’s hard. You feel lost. You push, push, push. And then – in a moment – everything clicks, comes together, and that section is done!

There are a number of areas of life that are like that. We expect projects to have linear progress: 1+1=2. But in an increasingly complex world, there are some actions we can take where 1+1=0 and others where 1+1=12. There’s no way to know on the front end when or what the payoff will be.

In complex systems, success is about 1) choosing the projects you’re willing to push through and 2) being willing to stick with it until success comes (or abandon at a pre-determined point). It won’t always happen when or how you’d expect.

And now, it’s back to slogging through the next section of that dissertation.

When online education scales, you can hire James Cameron to produce Math 101

Marc Andreessen, creator of Netscape, talks about, among other things, online education:

You could probably bring in the whole online-education movement. But for me, the question is, who does the best with online schooling? And it’s mostly ­autodidacts, people who are self-starters. They’ve found that people from low-income communities actually get the least out of it.

It’s way too early to judge, because we’re at the very beginning of the development of the technology. It’s like critiquing dos 1.0 and saying that this will never turn into the Windows PC. We’re still in the prototype experimental phase. We can’t use the old approach to teach the world. We can’t build that many campuses. We don’t have the space. We don’t have money. We don’t have the professors. If you can go to Harvard, go to Harvard. But that’s not the question. The question is for the 14-year-old in Indonesia staring at a life of either, like, subsistence farming or being able to get a Stanford-quality education and being able to go into a profession.

The one other thing that people are really underestimating is the impact of entertainment-industry economics applied to education. Right now, withMOOCS,11 the production values are pretty low: You’ll film the professor in the classroom. But let’s just project forward. In ten years, what if we had Math 101 online, and what if it was well regarded and you got fully accredited and certified? What if we knew that we were going to have a million students per semester? And what if we knew that they were going to be paying $100 per student, right? What if we knew that we’d have $100 million of revenue from that course per semester? What production budget would we be willing to field in order to have that course?

You could hire James Cameron to do it.

You could literally hire James Cameron to make Math 101. Or how about, let’s study the wars of the Roman Empire by actually having a VR [virtual reality] experience walking around the battlefield, and then like flying above the battlefield. And actually the whole course is looking and saying, “Here’s all the maneuvering that took place.” Or how about re-creating original Shakespeare plays in the Globe Theatre?

This is key, folks. Scalability and production values (along with gamification and outcomes focused on significant learning) are going to change everything.

Education hasn’t seen true disruption. Yet.

For the first 10 years of “fairly common internet usage,” newspapers were fine.

There was email. There was AOL. There was instant messenger. There were even some news sites.

But for news, the local newspaper still provided a better product than the others.

Last weekend, my wife and I signed up for a six-week newspaper deal at one of those community festivals where you can get insurance quotes, sno cones, and hours of bounce house fun for the kids.  And as I flipped through the paper this week, I couldn’t help but wish I could scroll through a list of headlines and click on the ones of interest.

At some point, the internet won. Once I had a Twitter feed, Facebook, and push notifications, most of the news I wanted found me. Anything else could be found in seconds.

Personalized. Immediate. Convenient. The internet became the better product.

Higher education has faced technology-driven change, but the real disruption is yet to come.

When the choice is either an online classroom that includes lectures and discussion board posts or an in-person lecture and classroom discussion, the in-person option still wins for a number of people. If online is simply a mirror of in-person but a little less personal and a little more convenient, it’s not a clear winner.

But a new form of education is on its way. Predictive, responsive, technology-driven learning will suddenly make a classroom seem antiquated. Why sit in a lecture with 40 students all at different levels of understanding when I can move through a focused, personalized, adaptive curriculum at my own pace?

Universities and colleges can choose to integrate new technology now and create a radical, dynamic, personalized learning environment, or they can wait and insist that in person lectures are better than online videos. There’s an opportunity. And there’s still a window.

When I worked in newspapers, our publisher frequently compared newspapers to the railroad industry. He said if rail lines had realized they were in the transportation business, not the engine and track business, we’d have BNSF and Union Pacific airlines today. Likewise, newspapers had to decide if they were in the information business or the paper business.

What about education?

Tangible experiences + technology = education’s sweet spot

Ben Thompson writes an insightful post on the cost of software moving toward free, and it ties in with online education.

Ben says “over time the price of a product moves to its marginal cost, and if the marginal cost is zero, that means free is inevitable.”

Online education will move toward free. That’s good for students, but bad for universities (education needs to find a reasonable cost, but “reasonable” isn’t zero, either).

As we move to online information delivery, the pay model will go the same direction as music, books, and software. The additional cost of one more user in a digital setting is almost $0. The sunk costs of creating the knowledge, the video, and the website don’t matter to the user.

Back to Ben:

“This is one of the primary ways that software will be monetized going forward: hardware sold at a significant margin that is justified by the differentiation provided by software. …

On the flipside, though, tangible products, which by definition have marginal costs of greater than $0 – continue to be valued by customers. No one expects a free microwave, or car, or even a candy bar. Consumers understand that making, packaging, and shipping such products costs money, and there is no compunction to spending money for that proverbial latte that is more than an app.

This is critical to understand while thinking about consumer business models: consumers pay money for tangible goods; they don’t for virtual goods (in-app purchases for games is a glaring exception here).”

As higher education experiments with online delivery:

– Cost will plummit to zero.

– Unique experiences still matter.

And that’s the killer app. It’s the secret to success in the online age. To compete with online-only options (especially if and when those online options gain credibility and credentialing abilities), existing universities must provide the tangible good that creates value.