Strategy. Innovation. Brand.

Innovation

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My Buddy, The Bitcoin Broker

Disrupter

My buddy, Yancey, is a Bitcoin broker. He’s been arranging deals part-time for several years now. About a year ago, he went full time. He seems to be doing fine.

It’s ironic that the Bitcoin needs a broker. In my opinion, the best thing about Bitcoin, and the underlying blockchain, is the potential to disintermediate transactions. By eliminating middlemen, blockchain systems may deliver two major benefits:

  • Reduce the cost of transactions;
  • Make transactions easier and faster to complete.

Conceivably, the blockchain can produce a world of frictionless commerce where we no longer need trusted intermediaries. It’s ironic that Yancey serves as an intermediary for a technology that aims to eliminate intermediaries.

This suggests the blockchain has not yet reached its full potential. My question for Yancey: will it ever? I chatted with Yancey for about an hour last week. Here are some of the highlights.

  • Bitcoin was an experiment. Nobody expected it to sweep the world. It’s more like a science fair project than a NASA space shot. The surprise is that it works not that it’s imperfect. Don’t judge the viability of blockchain or of digital currencies based solely on the Bitcoin experience.
  • Bitcoin’s base software ensures that the system can never produce more than 21 million Bitcoins. People can “mine” the coins through computationally intensive transactions. The more miners participating, the more challenging the transactions become. The world has now mined approximately 17 million Bitcoins; we’re still several years away from the limit. This architecture delivers two additional benefits:
    • It’s so difficult to create coins that no one entity can dominate the entire system. Dispersed responsibility and record keeping are the keys to Bitcoin’s security, veracity, and trust.
    • When the limit is reached, no more coins can ever be created. Thus the currency can’t be inflated as fiat currencies can. If demand rises and supply can’t respond, the value of each Bitcoin will also rise. (As values rise, we’ll need to subdivide Bitcoins into ever-smaller units for day-to-day use. Today, a satoshi is the smallest available sliver – it’s one-hundredth of one-millionth of a Bitcoin or .00000001 BTC.)
  • While Bitcoin has captured the headlines, the blockchain is potentially a much greater disrupter. We can make virtually any information fraud-proof. As I’ve reported before, Peruvian landowners are storing their titles in blockchain databases to prevent land fraud. Sports memorabilia collectors want to create a chain of evidence that proves that this baseball was the one Mark McGwire hit for number 70 on September 8, 1998. Antique and fine art dealers similarly want a tamper-proof record of provenance. Authors, artists, and scientists want to prove that their important discovery or manuscript or painting existed on or before a given date. Before blockchain, we needed trusted intermediaries to verify these facts. With blockchain, perhaps we don’t.
  • It’s still the Wild West in crypto/block land but settlers are bringing barbed wire to set up fences. Banks, in particular, sense that they are ripe for disintermediation. Why should customers wait for days for a check to clear – while the bank reaps the float – when we can make instantaneous transfers without a middleman? Banks would prefer to cannibalize themselves than have someone else do it for them. To do so, they need some guardrails but would rather not invite full-bore government regulation. They need to show that they can police themselves. (J.P. Morgan’s announcement of JPM coin– which debuted while I was chatting with Yancey – is a step in this direction.)
  • People worry about the use of cryptocurrencies to support terrorism, but some constraints are already in place. These include:
    • KYC – Know Your Customer – helps institutions identify “bad actors” throughout their transaction chain.
    • AML – Anti-Money Laundering – a set of procedures and regulations that help to identify and stop money laundering.
    • CTF – Counter-Terrorist Financing – helps institutions identify, trace, and recover illegally obtained assets.

Additionally, the structure of the blockchain itself can help prevent fraud. What’s stored in the blockchain can’t be changed. A bad actor could conceivably add to the blockchain but such additions are easy to identify and trace.

  • Arbitrage by hedge funds is driving much of the trading in Bitcoin (and other digital currencies) today. Hedge funds can lock in a price (for two or three hours) and find a buyer at the same time. The fund buys at the spot price minus one or two percent and immediately sells at the spot price. I asked Yancey how I could play this game. He asked if I had $40 million to get started. Not yet.
  • Stablecoins are the next wave. Bitcoin has no assets behind it – its value is simply a question of supply-and-demand. In other words, it’s just like a fiat currency. Stablecoins are based on some asset – like Venezuelan oil or Zimbabwean gold. Stablecoins aim to reduce the wild price fluctuations seen in so many digital currencies. The downside? Someone or some entity has to manage the physical asset. Once again, we have to place our trust in an intermediary.
  • The JPM Coin is an interesting variant of a stablecoin. It’s linked to the dollar: one JPM coin = one dollar. So, the coin is based on an asset. But the asset – the dollar – is not based on anything. It’s a fiat currency. It’s not clear if this will help or hinder the adoption of JPM Coin.
  • The next wave of competition will come at the platform level. Several different companies have created platforms for creating blockchain systems. It feels like the database wars of the early 80s. Which one (or ones) will dominate? More on that the next time I catch up with Yancey.

 

Ideas and Free Throws

Good idea.

Assume, for a moment, that I’m your manager. I call you into my office one day and say, “You’re doing pretty good work … but you’re going to have to get better at shooting free throws on the basketball court. If you want a promotion this year, you’ll need to make at least 75% of your free throws.”

What would you do? Assuming that you don’t resign on the spot, you would probably get a basketball, go to the free throw line, and start practicing free throws (also known as foul shots). Like most skills, you would probably find that your accuracy improves with practice. You might also hire a coach or watch some training videos, but the bottom line is practice, practice, practice.

Now, let’s change the scenario. I call you into my office and say, “You’re doing pretty good work … but you’re going to have to get better at creating ideas. If you want a promotion this year, you’ll need to increased the number of good ideas you generate by at least 75%.”

Now what? Well … I’d suggest that you start practicing the art of creating good ideas. In fact, I’d suggest that it’s not very different from practicing the art of shooting free throws.

But shooting free throws and creating ideas seem to be very different processes. Here’s how they feel:

  • Shooting free throws – you get a basketball, you walk to the line – 15 feet from the basket – and you launch the ball into the air. You’re conscious of every action. You recognize that you’re the cause and a flying basketball is the result.
  • Creating ideas – nothing happens … then, while you’re walking down the street, minding your own business – poof! – a good idea pops into mind. You have no sense of agency. Instead of feeling like the cause, you feel like the effect.

The two activities seem very different but, actually, they’re not. In both cases, you’re doing the work. With free throws, you readily recognize what you’re doing. With ideas, you don’t. Free throws happen in your conscious mind, also known as System 2. New ideas, on the other hand, happen below the level of consciousness, in System 1. When System 1 works up an idea, it pops it into System 2 and you become aware of it.

We understand how to practice something in System 2 – we’re aware of our activity. But how do we practice in System 1? How can we practice something that we’re not aware of?

We think of our mind as controlling our body. But, as Amy Cuddy has pointed out, our bodily activities also influence our mental states. If we make ourselves big, we grow more confident. If we smile, our mood brightens.

So how do we use our bodies to teach our brains to have good ideas? First, we need to observe ourselves. What were you doing the last time you had a good idea? I’ve noticed that most of my good ideas pop into my head when I’m out for a walk. When I’m stuck on a difficult problem, I recognize that I need a good idea. I quit what I’m doing and go for a walk. Oftentimes, it works – my System 1 generates an idea and pops it into System 2.

In my critical thinking classes, I ask my students to raise their hands if they have ever in their lives had a good idea. All hands go up. Everybody has the ability to create good ideas. The question is practice.

Then I ask my students what they were doing the last time they had a good idea. The list includes: out for a walk, driving, riding in a car, bus, or train (but not an airplane), taking a shower, drifting off to sleep, and bicycling.

I also ask them what activities don’t generate good ideas. The list includes: when they’re stressed, highly focused, multitasking, overly tired, overly busy, or sitting in meetings.

So how do we practice the art of having good ideas? By doing more of those activities that generate good ideas (and fewer of those that don’t). The most productive activities – like walking – seem to occupy part of our attention while leaving much of our brainpower free to wander somewhat aimlessly. Our bodily activity influences and stimulates our System 1. The result is often a good idea.

Is that perfectly clear? Good. I’m going for a walk.

One-Day Seminars – Fall 2018

Wake up! It’s seminar time.

This fall, in addition to my regular academic courses, I’ll  teach three one-day seminars designed for managers and executives.

These seminars draw on my academic courses and are repackaged for professionals who want to think more clearly and persuade more effectively. They also provide continuing education credits under the auspices of the University of Denver’s Center for Professional Development.

If you’re guiding your organization into an uncertain future, you’ll find them helpful. Here are the dates and titles along with links to the registration pages.

I hope to see you in one or more of these seminars. If you’re not in the Denver area, I can also take these on the road. Just let me know of your interest.

Bitcoin, Blockchain, and Five Years

What’s next?

I first wrote about Bitcoin on this website five years ago today. (Click here). I decided not to buy any at the time because the price had surged to well over one hundred dollars! Clearly it was a bubble. If only I had known that the price would peak at $18,000 a few years later. (Today, the price is about $6,800).

So what’s happened over the past five years? Let’s look at Bitcoin’s benefits and then investigate some of the ways that it has changed our world.

Bitcoin is based on a blockchain stored in multiple locations. This gives it two major advantages: it can’t be erased and can’t be tampered with. Simply put, it’s like writing checks in ink rather than in pencil, using paper that can’t be destroyed. A blockchain can record transactions and ensure that they will always be available as a matter of public record. Bitcoin uses this feature to buy and sell things. Each transaction is recorded forever, meaning that you can’t spend the same Bitcoin more than once.

Bitcoins can also reduce inflation because they can’t be printed at a government’s whim. Instead, they’re “mined” through complex mathematical calculations. The process gradually grows the supply of coins. The money supply grows in predictable ways. This appeals to anyone who worries that governments will artificially inflate their national currencies.

Bitcoin is also anonymous – just like cash. Unlike cash, however, it’s not physical. It can easily be moved around the world as electronic blips. That makes transactions convenient and inexpensive and could conceivably cut out banks as middlemen. This makes Bitcoin attractive to many groups, especially criminals.

So, what’s happened? First, the idea of the blockchain has spread. There’s no reason to limit the blockchain to currency transactions. We can store anything in blockchain and ensure that it never disappears. In other words, we believe that it is more trustworthy than government or financial entities.

As Tim Wu writes, we are undergoing, “… a monumental transfer of social trust: away from human institutions backed by governments and to systems reliant on well-tested computer code.” Wu notes that we already trust computers to fly airplanes, assist in surgery, and guide us to our destination. Why not financial systems as well? A well-organized cryptocurrency could become the de facto standard global currency and eliminate the need for many banking services.

But we don’t need to limit the blockchain to financial transactions. Any record that must be inviolate can potentially benefit from blockchain technology. Some examples:

  • The Peruvian economist, Hernando de Soto, has suggested that we can combat poverty by storing land ownership records in blockchain systems. Land ownership disputes in Latin America can last for centuries. Blockchain could simplify the process and ensure that those who hold title to land can’t be cheated out of it.
  • De Soto’s proposal eliminates the government as the arbiter of land titles. This is part of a broader trend to disintermediate governments. Why should governments be information czars? Better to store our records in blockchain. This could include land titles, personal identification, health records (including our DNA), the provenance of art works, stock ownership, international fund transfers, and self-enforcing contracts.
  • Tim Wu suggests that we’re moving our trust from governments to code. But we’re only part way there. In our first step away from governments, we put our trust in giant Internet companies like Facebook and Google. We’re now discovering that these entities are no more trustworthy than governments. Indeed, they may be less trustworthy. What’s the next step? Many suggest that it’s the blockchain.
  • Meanwhile, afraid of being disintermediated, governments are starting to plan cryptocurrencies of their own. Russia has proposed a digital currency with several former soviet socialist republics. Sweden and China are both interested in their own cryptocurrencies and have established study groups. But the first government out of the gate seems to be Venezuela, driven by a financial crisis. Venezuela’s printed currency, the Bolívar, suffers from inflation rates around 4,000%. So the government has just announced a new cryptocurrency called the Petro, based on the nation’s oil revenues. The government is essentially saying, “We’re incompetent to print paper money but you can trust the Petro because it’s based on code, not a bumbling bureaucracy. We humans can’t interfere with it.” Will it work? Stay tuned.

Of course, we can also use blockchains for less noble pursuits. The blockchain can store any information, including pornography. That’s a problem but it’s the same problem that was faced by myriad new technologies, including VCRs and the Internet itself. Criminals can also use cryptocurrencies for ransomware attacks, and to traffic in contraband or avoid taxes. We can ameliorate these problems but we probably can’t eliminate them. Still, the advantages of the technology seem much greater than the disadvantages.

So … what happens over the next five years? The New York Times reports that venture capitalists poured more than half a billion dollars into blockchain projects in the first three months of this year. So, I expect we’ll see a shakeout at the platform level over the next five years. Today, there are many ways to implement blockchain. It reminds me of the personal computing market in, say, 1985 – too many vendors selling too many technologies through too many channels. I expect the market will consolidate around two or perhaps three major platforms. Who will win? Perhaps IBM. Perhaps R3. Perhaps Ethereum. Perhaps Multichain. Rather than buying Bitcoin, I’d suggest that you study the platforms and place your bets accordingly.

In the meantime, we need to ask ourselves a simple question: Are we really willing to forego our trust in traditional institutions and put it all into computer code?

Designing A Life — Fate and Gravity

Design constraint.

I was one of the taller kids in my high school class. I thought – and hoped – that I might use this size advantage to become a star basketball player.

Alas, it was not to be. I had a bad case of what’s often called “white guy’s disease”. Simply put, I couldn’t jump. Though I was over six feet tall, I could barely touch the rim even with my mightiest leap.

Van Jones would call this my fate. In a memorable commencement speech at Loyola New Orleans, Jones distinguished between fate and destiny. He defines fate as “those things that we have no control over” and suggests that the “people who are most miserable in life are the ones who spend their time cursing their fate.” (Click here for the video).

As it happens, the field of design thinking has a similar concept. Dave Evans, a design engineer, calls it the gravity problem. No matter how hard we try, we can’t change gravity. Indeed, we can’t even suspend it temporarily. Wouldn’t it be great to suspend gravity while we’re building a new house and then reinstate it when we move in? Unfortunately, we can’t. Time to move on. (For a podcast featuring Evans, click here).

Gravity is a fact of life. My inability to jump is a fact of my life. Instead of asking, “How can I change my fate?” it’s better to accept it and ask more useful questions. A useful question is one that we can actually do something about. A designer would say that we need to design around the constraints.

As Evans describes it, we’re looking for room to maneuver around the facts that define our products or our lives. I couldn’t jump very high. That’s a design constraint. So I might ask a different question: “How can I make basketball an important part of my life, even though I can’t play very well?” Once I ask the how can I question, I can dream up alternatives. I might become a coach. Or a sportscaster. Or I might decide to take up a sport that doesn’t require jumping.

Van Jones calls this destiny as opposed to fate. We have no control over fate. But we can respond to destiny. As Jones points out, “The world is not going to tell you every day about …” your destiny. We have to live our lives, and respond to our challenges, to discover our destiny.

Whether we call it destiny or design thinking, when we bump up against gravity, we need to change the question. By doing so, we can find an array of alternatives. Once armed with a list of alternatives, we can design a life or a product. Which alternatives fit the constraints? Which ones don’t?

We don’t design a product and then launch it. Rather we design it, then re-design it, then re-design it as we discover new constraints. Similarly, it’s difficult to design a life before we launch it. To overcome fate and discover our destiny, we need to design our lives as we live them.

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