Raising money by requesting a “penny for your preferences”

By Jacqueline Rifkin, Ph.D.

Can your preference for cats or dogs be leveraged to help others? In recently published research, my co-authors and I explore a strategy we call “dueling preferences”, which can be observed in cafés, in charity drives, and on the street. The dueling preferences approach frames the act of giving as a choice between two options and, according to our findings, it can be more effective at raising money than traditional appeals. We find that this approach works because it gives people a chance to say something about who they are—an opportunity most of us are willing to pay for.

Many people and organizations—ranging from café baristas, to charities, to other front-line customer service and retail workers—rely on customer gifts like tips and donations to survive. As a result, people are always trying to come up with creative solutions to encourage giving and raise money.

You might have noticed a new kind of giving appeal in cafés or charity drives, where the opportunity to give is framed as a “duel” between two options, and a potential giver can express their personal preference via their gift. In cafés, for example, side-by-side tip jars may ask whether patrons prefer LeBron James or Michael Jordan, and patrons indicate their preference by dropping cash in the appropriate jar. Similarly, the company BallotBin designs custom receptacles that ask smokers a question, like whether hamburgers or pizza is their favorite food, allowing them to express their preference by disposing of their cigarette butts in one of two labeled compartments (https://ballotbin.co.uk/).

Is this “dueling preferences” strategy simply eye-catching, or does it actually motivate more people to engage in prosocial behavior? And if it can be effective, why?

Our findings
In our recent article in the Journal of Marketing, I, along my co-first author Katherine Du (Assistant Professor at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee) and Jonah Berger (Associate Professor at University of Pennsylvania), sought out to answer these questions. First, we placed a cats-versus-dogs duel in a café in Durham, North Carolina, and we secretly recorded when and how much people tipped. We discovered that the duel was indeed more effective than the café’s traditional tip jar—it more than doubled the baristas’ tips compared to a typical day. We also found that implementing a chocolate versus vanilla duel increased donations to the American Red Cross by 28% percent, compared to a standard donation ask.

Next, we sought to understand why this approach works. Several follow-up studies revealed that this approach works because it provides people with the opportunity to say something about who they are. People love to share their opinions—in fact, the parts of the brain that light up when we share our opinions also light up in response to finding $10 or getting a sweet treat. Put simply, sharing what we believe in is so rewarding that people are willing to give money to do it. This inherent drive to share our preferences is what makes the dueling approach so effective at increasing prosocial giving.

Because the dueling preferences strategy is powered by people’s drive to express themselves, it is most effective at raising money when the duel captures issues that most people are opinionated about, such as summer versus winter, mountains versus beach, or chocolate versus vanilla ice cream. Indeed, when we tested a duel that asked people’s preferences for the letter “A” vs. “B”—a relatively uninspiring issue—this did not increase giving. The dueling preferences approach is also more likely to work among people who particularly love to express themselves. While some people like to keep their opinions closer to their vests, many love to share their thoughts to anyone who will listen. Our studies showed that the dueling preferences approach is especially effective among the latter.

Putting it all together
Overall, our research suggests that those interested in increasing prosocial giving, including customer service workers and managers of small businesses and charities, can benefit by leveraging this simple and flexible approach, and in turn, aid the people and communities on the receiving end of these crucial gifts.

Moving forward, perhaps this approach could be applied to encourage additional prosocial behaviors beyond just tipping and donating. For instance, while public health experts have extolled the importance of protecting others by wearing masks, many local and federal agencies have struggled to get people on board. Perhaps by offering citizens the choice between various expressive masks, like offering MU or KU masks in Kansas City, these agencies may increase adoption and help mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. Ultimately, the magic of dueling preferences lies in its ability to leverage any valued preferences—whether that is a Star Trek fan, chocaholic, or lefty—to increase prosocial behavior.

Journey to Leadership with Andy Rieger, President of Jacob Rieger Distillery Company

Andy Rieger, President of Jacob Rieger Distillery & Company, is the latest guest to appear on the Journey to Leadership Podcast hosted by Gary O’Bannon, Executive-in-Residence. During their talk, Andy describes how he and his business partner, Ryan Maybee, are navigating J-Rieger through the COVID-19 pandemic by creating new business ventures within the J-Rieger brand.

Founded in 1887 by his great-great-great-grandfather, Jacob Rieger, the original distillery closed during Prohibition. Andy and Ryan resurrected the distillery nearly 100 years later in 2014.

A graduate of Southern Methodist University with a double major in Mathematics and Finance, Andy is a former private equity analyst and investment banker. His executive experience, combined with a passion for manufacturing and brand-building, have fueled his transition to management and operations at the distillery.

A Kansas City native, he is the lead force behind the growth of the J. Rieger & Co. brand and the revival of Kansas City’s historic Electric Park neighborhood, where this interview took place, at 2700 Guinotte Avenue.

It’s an understatement to say that Andy’s description of J-Rieger’s COVID journey is mesmerizing. Enjoy!

Journey to Leadership with Andy Rieger, President of Jacob Rieger Distillery Company from Gary OBannon on Vimeo.

About Gary O’Bannon

Gary O’Bannon recently retired as the Director of Human Resources for the City of Kansas City, Missouri, after a 34-year career in public service where he managed a staff of 45 HR professionals who coordinated a comprehensive human resource program for approximately 5,000 employees.

He has a Bachelor’s degree in Communications from the University of Missouri-Kansas City and a Master’s degree in Human Resources Management, in addition to graduating from both the Harvard and Michigan State University Schools of Negotiation. Gary has taught master’s and undergraduate-level human resource management and leadership curriculum at The Bloch School since 2012, and formerly at the University of Kansas and Avila University. He has served as a visiting instructor for George Washington University/Public Service School of Excellence in Washington, D.C. and the Maxwell School at Syracuse University in New York, and has been a frequent invited speaker at national and regional conferences on various human resource topics. He has also published work on the topic of generational issues.

Since 2009, Gary has been a member of the State of Missouri Human Resources Advisory Board, which provides compensation and personnel advice to the Governor’s Office, and has been the chairperson since 2014. Until his recent retirement as HR Director, he was a former member and past chair of the Bloch School of Management Human Resources Advisory Board. Currently, he serves as a Faculty Advisor for the student Human Resources Association.

During his HR career, Gary was the recipient of the Award of Excellence from the National Public Employer Labor Relations Association, as well as the Local Administrator of the Year Award from the Greater Kansas City Chapter of American Society of Public Administrators. In 1994, The Kansas City Globe newspaper cited him as one of the 100 Most Influential African-Americans.

From 1984-2003, Gary worked for various radio stations in the Kansas City area, as a news anchor and reporter. From 1984-1998, he co-hosted Urban Affairs, a public-affairs show on KCTV-5, with his long-time mentor Chuck Moore.

Bloch Idea Salon: Last Dance Series

The Bloch Idea Salon is a diverse community of intellectually curious individuals who enjoy engaging in interesting conversations on leadership, business, strategy, civic issues, and more. The salon was launched with a four part series on leadership using the Michael Jordan Documentary, The Last Dance, as a case study. The discussion was led by local leaders: Scott Helm, Director of the Bloch Executive MBA program; Marvin E. Carolina, Jr., President and CEO of the Better Business Bureau of Kansas City; and André L. Davis, Corporate Engagement and Business Development Executive with Built Interior Construction.

The first session explored a variety of themes found in the documentary that are present in business beyond the sports industry. At the end of the session, participants voted on topics for the next two sessions. Drawing on current events, the last session in the series focused on racism, inequality, and implicit bias. Each session can be viewed below.

Future community discussions will be announced soon! In the meantime, join the Bloch Idea Salon on LinkedIn to connect with other intellectually curious individuals who enjoy engaging in interesting conversations on leadership, business, strategy, civic issues, and more.

 

 

About the Hosts 

Scott Helm, Ph.D. is the Director of the Bloch Executive MBA program. Scott has spent the last several years working with for-profit and nonprofit businesses on strategy and design thinking. His primary research focus is social entrepreneurship and his work in this area has led to publication and several presentations at international and national academic conferences. Scott is an economist at heart and earned his B.A. in Economics at Washington College. After moving to Kansas City, Scott earned an M.P.A. in Nonprofit Management and Ph.D. in Public Administration and Economics from the University of Missouri – Kansas City. In the future, Scott would love to do more research into how people make decisions. Beyond the office, Scott and his wife, Gillian, stay busy with their three young sons and two dogs.

Marvin E. Carolina, Jr. is the President and CEO of the Better Business Bureau of Greater Kansas City. Prior to joining the Better Business Bureau of Greater Kansas City, Carolina was Vice President of Diversity & Inclusion for J.E. Dunn Construction Company where he led local and national programs designed to increase opportunities and operational capacity for small and mid-sized businesses and contractors. Marvin has been recognized for his professional achievements by receiving the Ace Award, Community Champion, Top 40 in Their 40’s Business and Community Leader, Top Contractors for Diversity (Kansas City); Innovation Award (Houston); Hispanic Community Builder Award (Atlanta). Additionally, Carolina is a member of the National Speakers Association and the author of two books focused on entrepreneurship and small businesses, Across the Middle: Entrepreneur Strategies for Growth and Success (2016) and Build to Win: A Playbook for Entrepreneurial Success (2017).

André L. Davis is a Corporate Engagement and Business Development Executive with Built Interior Construction. André is an accomplished thought-leader, mentor, coach, speaker and has moderated a number of events in and around our City. With over 20 years’ experience working with local CEOs and Executives he has worked in a number of industries while continuing to give back to the community. André is active on multiple Boards, Former Chair of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Board for Big Brothers Big Sisters – Kansas City, volunteers at non-profit organizations and most recently was hand-picked to participate in the Civic Council of Greater Kansas City, Kansas City Tomorrow leadership program. He’s also an Alumni of The Independent Magazine, Rising Star Award and co-founded a Scholarship at his alma mater College geared towards minority students.

Journey to Leadership: 5th District Congressman Emanuel Cleaver II

Gary O’Bannon, Executive-in-Residence at the Henry W. Bloch School of Management recently applied his experience as a news reporter toward a new project: the Journey to Leadership podcast. In his most recent episode, Gary spoke with Congressman Emanuel Cleaver, II.

Congressman Cleaver is now in his seventh term representing Missouri’s Fifth Congressional District, which is located in the western portion of the state and includes all of Lafayette, Ray and Saline counties along with portions of Clay and Jackson counties.

After having served 12 years on the City Council of Kansas City, Cleaver was elected as the city’s first African-American Mayor in 1991.

Congressman Cleaver appeared on the Journey to Leadership Podcast during the midst of the local protests over the killing of George Floyd. In this interview, Cleaver talked about the Kansas City Police Department’s response to the protests and the Federal Government’s responsibilities relating to police reform measures and the impacts of Covid-19 on the U.S. economy.

Journey to Leadership Podcast Profile: 5th District Congressman Emanuel Cleaver II from Gary OBannon on Vimeo.

About Gary O’Bannon

Gary O’Bannon recently retired as the Director of Human Resources for the City of Kansas City, Missouri, after a 34-year career in public service where he managed a staff of 45 HR professionals who coordinated a comprehensive human resource program for approximately 5,000 employees.

He has a Bachelor’s degree in Communications from the University of Missouri-Kansas City and a Master’s degree in Human Resources Management, in addition to graduating from both the Harvard and Michigan State University Schools of Negotiation. Gary has taught master’s and undergraduate-level human resource management and leadership curriculum at The Bloch School since 2012, and formerly at the University of Kansas and Avila University. He has served as a visiting instructor for George Washington University/Public Service School of Excellence in Washington, D.C. and the Maxwell School at Syracuse University in New York, and has been a frequent invited speaker at national and regional conferences on various human resource topics. He has also published work on the topic of generational issues.

Since 2009, Gary has been a member of the State of Missouri Human Resources Advisory Board, which provides compensation and personnel advice to the Governor’s Office, and has been the chairperson since 2014. Until his recent retirement as HR Director, he was a former member and past chair of the Bloch School of Management Human Resources Advisory Board. Currently, he serves as a Faculty Advisor for the student Human Resources Association.

During his HR career, Gary was the recipient of the Award of Excellence from the National Public Employer Labor Relations Association, as well as the Local Administrator of the Year Award from the Greater Kansas City Chapter of American Society of Public Administrators. In 1994, The Kansas City Globe newspaper cited him as one of the 100 Most Influential African-Americans.

From 1984-2003, Gary worked for various radio stations in the Kansas City area, as a news anchor and reporter. From 1984-1998, he co-hosted Urban Affairs, a public-affairs show on KCTV-5, with his long-time mentor Chuck Moore.

Poverty, Race, and the COVID Crisis in Wyandotte County

By Patrick Sallee

Health disparities are not a new concept, but the COVID crisis is shining a bright light on just how damaging these disparities are to communities of color. We are now seeing this play out, as public health officials anticipated, having a more substantial impact on low income and minority families, particularly Latino families.

In our work at Vibrant Health, a Federally Qualified Health Center in Wyandotte County, KS, we see a little more than 10,000 patients a year with more than 70% of them being Latino. Our organization is working daily to close the gap on health disparities and health outcomes and when it comes to the COVId-19 crisis the need for access is tremendous. By now the stats are well known. In the state of Kansas, Wyandotte County ranks near the bottom in terms of health outcomes. Johnson County ranks near the top. Health outcomes aren’t an issue related to number of health care providers in the community, they are an issue of access and opportunity. 

Health is a poverty issue. And poverty is an issue of race. 

In Kansas, 28% of African Americans, 22% of Hispanics and 16% of Native Americans live in poverty, while 9% of the white population lives in poverty. In Wyandotte County, just over half the population is minority, so you can do the math then on how high the poverty rate is overall in the county. How does this connect to COVID-19 and our response?

  • It means that many of the residents of Wyandotte County don’t have the option of working from home. They work in hourly jobs, many likely deemed essential, that require them to be at risk each day. Higher risk equates to more likely to be sick with the virus or asymptomatic carrier – with a high risk of passing on to others.
  • It makes clear that when part of our community is at greater risk, all of our community is at risk. When a pandemic hits, we are all equally at risk. Taking better care of our neighbors with the least access and opportunity, improves all of our lives.
  • It further reinforces the single most significant thing we can do – either state – to help families out of poverty and to improve health would be to expand Medicaid.

As we think about how we best serve our minority communities, particularly the Latino community, we have to work to overcome a number of challenges.

  1. Fear – It is no surprise that the climate around immigration in this country is toxic. We can debate why that is, but the reality is apparent to everyone. This creates a dynamic where Latino residents avoid engagement with authority that could be seen as opening the door to ICE or other law enforcement. Even an entity like the public health department can be seen as a risky place to access services and interact.
  2. Uncertainty – Months after this crisis began, we still hear concerns about a positive COVID test being a death sentence or at the very least an automatic hospital stay that many people, particularly those uninsured, can’t afford.
  3. Misinformation – There is a tremendous amount of false information spreading every day about COVID-19. All of the community organizations working to inform their clients and share information about access are fighting an uphill battle with the piles of false and misleading information shared on social media.

The most important lesson this pandemic is teaching us is the importance of creating a strong safety net to support all families in our community.

When some of us are at greater risk, we are all at greater risk.

Photo by Adam Nieścioruk on Unsplash

Managing Virtual Teams

Gary O’Bannon

With new emphasis on telecommuting comes a new reality: Teams need a strategy for communicating digitally, and leaders must adapt quickly to effectively manage their people and meetings remotely. The virtual world appears user-friendly on the surface but many have now discovered that even with great technology, it’s a world full of complexity, such as overcoming time zone challenges, establishing that sense of team and tracking performance measures. Here’s a few suggestions on how to overcome these challenges.

 


 

About the Speaker

Gary O’Bannon recently retired as the Director of Human Resources for the City of Kansas City, Missouri, after a 34-year career in public service where he managed a staff of 45 HR professionals who coordinated a comprehensive human resource program for approximately 5,000 employees.

He has a Bachelor’s degree in Communications from the University of Missouri-Kansas City and a Master’s degree in Human Resources Management, in addition to graduating from both the Harvard and Michigan State University Schools of Negotiation. Gary has taught master’s and undergraduate-level human resource management and leadership curriculum at The Bloch School since 2012, and formerly at the University of Kansas and Avila University. He has served as a visiting instructor for George Washington University/Public Service School of Excellence in Washington, D.C. and the Maxwell School at Syracuse University in New York, and has been a frequent invited speaker at national and regional conferences on various human resource topics. He has also published work on the topic of generational issues.

Since 2009, Gary has been a member of the State of Missouri Human Resources Advisory Board, which provides compensation and personnel advice to the Governor’s Office, and has been the chairperson since 2014. Until his recent retirement as HR Director, he was a former member and past chair of the Bloch School of Management Human Resources Advisory Board. Currently, he serves as a Faculty Advisor for the student Human Resources Association.

During his HR career, Gary was the recipient of the Award of Excellence from the National Public Employer Labor Relations Association, as well as the Local Administrator of the Year Award from the Greater Kansas City Chapter of American Society of Public Administrators. In 1994, The Kansas City Globe newspaper cited him as one of the 100 Most Influential African-Americans.

From 1984-2003, Gary worked for various radio stations in the Kansas City area, as a news anchor and reporter. From 1984-1998, he co-hosted Urban Affairs, a public-affairs show on KCTV-5, with his long-time mentor Chuck Moore

Three Things When Reading A Study

Dr. Brian Anderson

We see a lot of studies in the media and in our organizations in normal circumstances. We are seeing even more now with the pandemic’s effect reverberating across the globe. Policy makers, executives, leaders—people—are relying on some of these studies to make decisions about their personal and professional activities as we navigate our post-shutdown world.

Unfortunately, many of these studies will prove to be wrong in some way or another. In most cases this is not because of nefarious researchers, but that good science is hard. Good statistics and statistical modeling is also hard.

While we often hear about “making data-driven decisions,” we need statistics and models to interpret the data. These models have assumptions and judgement calls that change how we interpret a model and the model’s usefulness. Even experts can make mistakes in their modeling, and hastily done research can worsen these mistakes.

Here are three things you can do when you come across a study to help you evaluate its usefulness, and how much confidence to have in its results. Whether the field is medicine, public health, economics, business, and beyond, these three things apply.

1) Focus on the effect size, not “statistical significance”

The term “statistical significance” and its associated p-value—p < .05—are too often misused and misunderstood. This happens so often that in 2016 the American Statistical Association issued the group’s first-ever statement on statistical practice cautioning about the use of “statistical significance” to evaluate a model’s results.

From the math, a p-value and “statistical significance” is very much a function of the amount of data used by the model. Trivial effect sizes can be “statistically significant” with a large enough sample. What matters is not whether the model crosses some arbitrary level for “statistical significance” but what the effect is telling us: What is the change in the outcome as I change the variable predicting the outcome? This is the answer we need to make better informed decisions.

2) Be wary of large effects and big claims

As a rule of thumb, big claims require big evidence. In most cases, the effects that we find in a model are small and noisy. Noisy in the sense that measurement error and modeling choices will change results. If a study is making a big claim, then there should be a lot of data behind it, other researchers replicated the study with a different sample, and all researchers have shared their data and code.

A similar rule applies to studies claiming “no effect.” In modeling, rarely is an effect size actually zero. Most often, when you see a study claiming “no effect” the effect size is very small, and the data is consistent with a small positive effect, zero effect, or a small negative effect. The problem with “no effect” is that we can misinterpret the result as a definitive “X does not change Y,” when this may not be the case in a different sample, with different measures, and different modeling approaches.

3) Context matters

Have you ever read a study and thought, “when I did the same thing, I didn’t get that result?” Or saw a study suggesting some strategy or business process and you thought “that won’t work in my industry?” You might be right!

Most models produce average estimates—over the data used in the sample, the model estimated an average expected effect of X on Y. That can be useful information, but it is important to remember people, businesses, industries, markets, cities, countries are different. It may be the case that a model showing one effect in one sample may be completely different with another sample in another time and place. We have more confidence in averages when we see a study replicated in a wide variety of settings and samples.

Let’s do an example.[1]

A few years back a group of scientists published a paper purporting the health benefits of cinnamon. Specifically, the authors concluded that “…the inclusion of cinnamon in the diet of people with type 2 diabetes will reduce risk factors associated with diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.”

We can use our three steps to quickly assess the claims made in the study. For example, the study reports a statistically significant change in the average of one group of study participants’ cholesterol level (mmol/l) from 4.91 to 4.09—a 16.7% decrease. While “statistically significant,” a 0.82 decrease has limited clinical significance; that is, it may not make any practical difference in the patient’s cholesterol level.

Recall that the study concludes that cinnamon “will [emphasis added] reduce factors associated with diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.” In the example above, the study based their analysis on 10 patients who took 1 gram—a little over one-third of a teaspoon—of cinnamon per day for 40 days. While possible for a trivial amount of a common spice in use around the world to result in substantive health benefits, it is also not very probable.

Lastly, the researchers recruited a total of sixty Pakistani type 2 diabetes patients for the study, 30 of whom took various cinnamon doses, and 30 took a placebo. To place a lot of confidence in the study’s conclusion, we would need to assume that we can generalize from these thirty individuals to hundreds of millions of people worldwide suffering from type 2 diabetes.[2] Is it possible? Of course. Is it probable? That is far less likely.

The value of the three factors is not to “prove” that a study is wrong. It may be that cinnamon does yield substantial health benefits, although we would need many more studies with many more people from many different countries to have faith in that result.

The value of the three factors is to help you to quickly evaluate how much confidence you should place in what the study is saying. A healthy skepticism is a useful lens!

[1] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/14633804/

[2] https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/diabetes

Five Insights: Featuring Jean-Paul Chaurand

Five Insights is an interview series featuring Kansas City business and community leaders sharing their experience and perspectives on current issues.

Jean-Paul Chaurand is the Executive Vice President of the H&R Block Foundation and the Marion and Henry Bloch Family Foundation. Prior to his work with the foundations, Jean-Paul was the Chief Operating Officer at the Guadalupe Centers and the Senior Vice President for Community Investment at the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation. Jean-Paul serves on the board of Children’s Mercy Hospital and is a graduate of the Bloch Executive MBA program.

In this session, Jean-Paul shares his thoughts on COVID-19, what areas of Kansas City need disruption, how companies led by people of color can better position themselves to advocate for capital in times like this, start-ups vs. established institutions, and the elements of a good idea.

Insight Shortcuts
2:10 What were your first thoughts when the virus happened?
4:04 What areas need disruption in Kansas City?
6:50 What could companies led by people of color do to better advocate for capital in times like these?
11:05 Who should we be supporting more right now: startups or established institutions?
18:05 What does a good idea look like?

Re-Opening Pandora’s Box (safely this time)

By Larry Wigger

While much is yet unknown about Covid-19, its transmission, potential immunity, or efficacy of treatments, the world’s energies are turning more and more to the business of re-starting economic engines.  Here in the U.S., our libertarian roots are showing, with public angst against any extended prohibitions on business and public activities.  What some describe as draconian response to this modern pandemic has created unprecedented drops in production, services, employment, and wages.  As businesses reboot, they are rightly considering what they will face, tremendous backlogs of pent-up consumer demand, along with the recent and still-evident supply chain shortages of household staples.  But make no mistake, the vast majority of these shortages are temporal and spatial mismatches, largely arising from lack of visibility in our supply chains.  Gaining visibility, not injecting inventory, is the key.

Company Perspective

Supply chain management is about getting the right things, in the right quantities, to the right entities, at the right time, to the right place, all at the agreed upon quality, service, and price.  The key to doing so consistently, is real time visibility to the full, relevant supply chain.  For some timely examples, see my colleague Tony Vatterott’s recent piece on why the food supply chain is not broken.

Firms naturally seek to manage risk.  Exponentially more so following idiosyncratic shocks like Covid-19.  As I suggested in my recent piece on three things to watch in supply chains, companies will re-assess their global exposure in offshore production and their decreased control from outsourcing, and will explore new opportunities in the medical industrial complex.

It has been said that companies don’t compete – their supply chains do, and that won’t change.  But in an effort to de-risk scenarios, renewed investments in technology will be made, some old, and some much newer.  Big data, residing on cloud platforms, captured via the internet of things (IoT), and securely communicated via blockchain, can all be brought together for real-time visualization of a firm’s global value chains.

Government Perspective

In spite of efficiencies in supply and latest technologies, Covid-19 has revealed the critical national and health risks from supply chain gaps.  One solution some will advocate for will be massive Federal and state stockpiles of selected supplies, as part of the rise of the medical industrial complex.  Some have envisioned each Federal, state, and local fiefdom with their own inventories of items they deem critical in an epidemic.  However, we should acknowledge the tremendous cost of these redundancies and that while some of them may be warranted, many will not.

There has been talk of the current U.S. administration as a wartime Presidency and that may be a fair analogy.  In truth, a wartime approach removes the constraints of deficit controls and inflation fears, as we’ve seen evidenced by the massive levels of stimulus spending just unleashed in the U.S. economy.  Using the analogy of World War II, the U.S. Department of War pursued victory with production, selling war bonds not to raise funding, but to avoid inflation by removing currency from consumers’ hands to stifle discretionary spending.  Following the war, U.S. service men and women returned home to factory jobs and spent the war bond savings, re-starting the economic engine.  Today, it is just as critical that we return to economic activity and full employment.  Confidence in a secure and transparent supply chain of required goods is critical to re-opening businesses.

Societal Perspective

Companies will build this transparency into their supply chains, as they should, to manage their own risks.  Governments will do so, as they should, at least in the areas of supply deemed critical to life and health.  The silver bullet would be to do so collaboratively.  Lean operations and JIT inventory systems excel in efficiency and agility, because they rely on collaborative, trusted supply chain relationships and transparent, full disclosure of relevant information.  Firms don’t share sensitive sales forecast data with transactional vendors, but rely instead on long-term partners.  Doing so allows them to shift inventory levels back upstream in the supply chain.  But when they do so, it is with confidence from full visibility to the total supply chain.

What I’m advocating is that we establish a real-time map of global value chains, interlocked with firms’ own proprietary data, to give government administrators visibility to the status and location of available inventories.  By mapping the flows of goods, in times of crisis government administrators could identify necessary resources and coordinate the quickest and most efficient deployment to areas of need.  Latest generations of security protocols, utilizing blockchain and crypto logic such as TripleBlind could protect firms’ competitive data, while allowing government administrators to stress test supply chains, much as we do the banking sector.

Toilet paper perceptions aside, the abundance mentality is still in effect.  Let’s focus on collaborating to expand the value pie and not fight over who will get the largest slice.  Companies will always compete with their supply chains.  Federal, state, and local governments should not be forced to do the same.


About the Author

Larry Wigger currently serves UMKC’s Henry W. Bloch School of Management as Assistant Teaching Professor of Supply Chain and Operations Management.  Larry is in the latter stages of his PhD in Economics at UMKC and holds both a Master of Science in Supply Chain Management and a general MBA from Elmhurst College and a BA in Business Administration from William Jewell College.  With over twenty years of progressive and varied management experience, Larry’s expertise includes the full range of supply chain management activities, strategic leadership in multiple business start-ups, as well as, operations, project and program management.

Larry’s experience includes 15 years in the petroleum industry, frequently focused on supply chain management roles, including all facets of demand planning, material forecasting, strategic sourcing, contract negotiation, tactical procurement, 3rd party logistics, continuous improvement, life-cycle cost and sustainability.  Additionally, Larry has held equity leadership positions in multiple start-ups across the construction and project management industry.  These activities have included consultancy and at-risk construction work for major global petroleum, retail, and hospitality clients, support services in the recent fracking boom, and three years of post-earthquake construction projects in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Pexels

Coping with Unemployment Stress during Uncertain Times

Gary O’Bannon

The economic toll of the pandemic is evident with the record-shattering number of unemployment claims filed on both sides of our state line. And while the loss of a job causes obvious financial challenges, it brings with it a number of psychological challenges as well, leaving many with the question on how to handle these feelings of loss.


About the Speaker

Gary O’Bannon recently retired as the Director of Human Resources for the City of Kansas City, Missouri, after a 34-year career in public service where he managed a staff of 45 HR professionals who coordinated a comprehensive human resource program for approximately 5,000 employees. He has a Bachelor’s degree in Communications from the University of Missouri-Kansas City and a Master’s degree in Human Resources Management, in addition to graduating from both the Harvard and Michigan State University Schools of Negotiation.

Gary has taught master’s and undergraduate-level human resource management and leadership curriculum at The Bloch School since 2012, and formerly at the University of Kansas and Avila University. He has served as a visiting instructor for George Washington University/Public Service School of Excellence in Washington, D.C. and the Maxwell School at Syracuse University in New York, and has been a frequent invited speaker at national and regional conferences on various human resource topics. He has also published work on the topic of generational issues.

Since 2009, Gary has been a member of the State of Missouri Human Resources Advisory Board, which provides compensation and personnel advice to the Governor’s Office, and has been the chairperson since 2014. Until his recent retirement as HR Director, he was a former member and past chair of the Bloch School of Management Human Resources Advisory Board. Currently, he serves as a Faculty Advisor for the student Human Resources Association.

During his HR career, Gary was the recipient of the Award of Excellence from the National Public Employer Labor Relations Association, as well as the Local Administrator of the Year Award from the Greater Kansas City Chapter of American Society of Public Administrators. In 1994, The Kansas City Globe newspaper cited him as one of the 100 Most Influential African-Americans. From 1984-2003, Gary worked for various radio stations in the Kansas City area, as a news anchor and reporter. From 1984-1998, he co-hosted Urban Affairs, a public-affairs show on KCTV-5, with his long-time mentor Chuck Moore.

Is the Supply Chain Broken?

By Anthony Vatterott

A few weeks ago I wrote a small piece on the supply chain challenges during interruptions both natural and man-made.  If you recall, I stated that the food supply chain is relatively stable and safe from negative implications of larger supply chain interruptions because most of the food products we consume (dairy, meat, poultry) are produced and consumed in the United States.  I also compared the interruptions we may experience to the ones noted in Brazil during a trucking strike as well as the consequences of a strike of longshoremen in 2014-2015.

It has been a few weeks and I wanted to circle back and check how my comments and assertions held up.  As recently stated in various news reports, companies like Tyson Foods, as well as several other meat packing plants and food processing plants, have been under scrutiny due to the disproportionate numbers of infected Covid-19 patients that work in such locations.

However, as bad as it might sound for a company like Tyson Foods to state the “food supply chain is breaking” it is my job to qualify such a statement.

As we know, coronavirus spreads among groups of shared interest who are gathering in generally close proximity to each other.  For example, we had the matter of Christian denomination South Koreans, sisters of a religious order at a nursing home, and a brotherhood of skiers in a small ski town in Idaho, all of whom shared the disease among their peers.

In the instance of Blaine County, Idaho, the proportion of infected per 100K population was more than 1000 cases higher than New York, New York.

So we can definitely say the likelihood of a workplace where sanitation plays such a significant role in processing and preparing food sources like pigs, chickens and cows–and where workers are in close proximity to each other–are also a breeding ground for the spread of coronavirus, where fluid aerosols, evaporation, perspiration and moisture levels may also cause other instances of disease like salmonella, listeria, and e.coli.   But can we say the food supply chain is broken?  Many experts and practitioners disagree with that conclusion.

It’s easy to explain why a major business leader of one of the largest meat processors in the country would suggest that the supply chain is breaking.  The truth:  the strain on labor and the need for the UCFW and meat packers to continue working through the pandemic as they are indeed essential workers, and the need to ensure their safe working environments, is critical to ensuring our food supply chains deliver the goods.  If I were a corporate executive, I would encourage any reasonable action that would ensure the continuity of my workforce and production capacity.  The action by Tyson of posting a full page ad in the New York Times was more a call to arms for the White House to initiate the Defense Production Act than it was to cause mass hysteria.  In a way, it was looking out for the farmers struggling with depopulating livestock.

The truth is, if the workers who slaughter, process and pack livestock into foodstuffs are not able to manually separate or monitor the packaging of these foods, we do not have enough automated processes in place to ensure continuity of manufacturing.  And there is where the bottleneck occurs.

However, a bottleneck indicating the supply chain is breaking is like being stuck in rush hour traffic and saying the Interstate is broken.  In time, it will correct itself, as demand patterns level off and individuals buying excess due to scarcity realize their food spoiled, or their deep freezer is fully stocked.  In a very similar measured response, we also have the ability to divert foods prepared for commercial sale to be allocated to retail stocks; a strategy that in the future becomes easier to manage with improved transparency created by distributed ledgers in the Blockchain that allow us to track even a single prescription pill from its production source to its consumption point.   And finally, we have other sources of food supply to rely on, as very poignantly explained on Saturday Night Live.

So what are we to believe?  Should we be planning to buy our next supply of beef from a locally raised, grass-fed stock and pay more for the higher quality?  Or should we consider reducing our animal-based protein intake to improve our life expectancy?  Several studies agree a more diverse diet with less reliance on diary and meats can lead to a healthier lifestyle.  Note:  all of these options are sustainable alternatives to “business as usual” and we haven’t even resorted to hunting, fishing and the self-reliance movement or the farm-to-table supply chain and community gardening initiatives where locally sourced and distributed goods are of a higher quality and produced closer to the point of consumption.  All of these alternatives reduce the food miles required to deliver your foods, support locally or regionally viable businesses, and keep small businesses operating.

So let’s be clear.  The food supply chain is not breaking.  In fact, here in the United States, it’s not even close to stalling.  What we do see is a very near term reduction in production capacity as workers get tested, cleared and are able to return as essential employees.  And with the actions of the government and the DPA, we can be sure it happens as fast as feasible.  Will it be a week or two where meats and dairy may be limited or the variety may not be as diverse?  Yes.  But do you need to fill your freezer with every flank steak and pork tenderloin in stock?  No.  If you are hungry, you can definitely select one of several dozen types of canned soup and ready to eat meals, the demands for which were estimated well over a few months before the pandemic to increase in demand and for which, there should be a readily ample supply, the variety and the desired comfort-food calm required to keep us all cozy at home, if necessary.  Just don’t make a run on the Goldfish!

COVID-19 and the Stock Market – April 28, 2020 Update

Dr. Nathan Mauck

My last market update was on March 19, 2020. In that article I noted that, “The biggest impact on the narrative surrounding markets and the Coronavirus will be updates about the battle against the virus itself. When good news on that front comes, markets could pivot quickly.”

As of April 28, 2020, the S&P 500 is up nearly 20% since my previous post. That is one of the quickest upward moves of that magnitude in history. We are now at levels of the S&P comparable to the summer and early fall of 2019, prior to the runup of late 2019 and early 2020. The market found the news it wanted, namely an emerging conversation about safely reopening the economy.

Narrative Update

In my March article I mentioned that starting late that month, the market began to pick winners and losers from the crisis instead of the across the board punishment witnessed early in the crisis. Amazon announced plans to hire 100,000 people over a month ago and since that point the stock has outperformed the market as a whole and is now trading higher than it was pre-crisis. On the negative side, Carnival Cruises is down about 70% since Valentine’s Day.

Aswath Damodaran is one of my favorite reads on market news. His recent book, Narrative and Numbers, outlines the importance of backing up economic stories with relevant data. For me, the above data provides some support for my own narrative that we have entered a more nuanced phase of the market where investors are making estimates about who is best positioned for a post-crisis economy.

In a recent interview with Investor Place, I noted that the big remaining unanswered question is about how much of the changes we are seeing are permanent and how much are temporary. For instance, Target has seen large sales increases in certain departments. Target CEO Brian Cornell said, “I don’t expect 50% increases in certain categories to go on forever, but we don’t know if that’s going to continue for four weeks, eight weeks or 24 weeks.” His uncertainty on this issue is not unique and we don’t have much in the way of numbers at this point to answer the permanent versus temporary question.

What to Watch

Professor Damodaran notes that this week brings a lot of earnings reports which will add additional numbers to use for narrative updates. One of the hardest hit industries, travel, has already provided some evidence on the economic damage done by COVID-19. Southwest recently announced a nearly $100 million after-tax first quarter loss. Perhaps even more staggering, the firm predicted that it will see 90 to 95 percent lower operating revenue in May of 2020 compared to May of 2019. Further, the firm is making no predictions beyond May of 2020.

In an interview with KCTV5 in late March, I noted that hotel occupancy was down to about 25%. That number slid closer to 20% just a week later. The travel industry is a good example of the debate about permanent and temporary changes. How long will we see super low occupancy rates and limited travel in general? When, if ever, will we get back to more typical occupancy rates of around 70%? Your guess is as good as mine on this, but the data from summer travels (or lack thereof) will greatly inform this story.

The biggest data point to watch now from my perspective is what happens with jobs. Particularly once some states begin a slow return to something like normal, the speed with which people are rehired and getting back to work will start to tell us how long this economic crisis might linger. Current employment trends are among the most sobering economic numbers related to the crisis so far and that is likely to continue in the short term.

COVID-19 itself remains the biggest wildcard and any good or bad news on this front will likely dominate any financial or economic news for the months ahead. Volatility will likely remain elevated in the near term, but the wild swings of March seem to be behind us, for now.

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Bias in datasets for AI+ML: why we also need to pay attention to the other side of the coin that is fairness in AI + ML

By Bryan Boots

In May 2019, Bryan presented on “Bias in Datasets for AI+ML” at the annual Code for America Summit in Oakland, CA. This article is adapted from that presentation.

You may have heard a lot about a push to reduce or remove bias in algorithms used for artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) in recent years. This has become a large and important topic and area of active research for computer scientists, for business leaders, for legal scholars, for ethics scholars, and others in the worlds of academics, government, and business.

A related and equally important topic – but less frequently-discussed – is the need to consider how datasets that are fed into these AI/ML algorithms can bias the recommendations given by these systems, regardless of the fairness of the algorithm.

First though, some definitions. When we talk about AI/ML out there in the world today, we’re not yet at the point – or even very close to it – of having an artificial general intelligence a la Terminator. What most people really mean when they say AI/ML these days in an everyday business applications sense is automation of statistical inference. What does that mean?

Many (though not all) AI/ML systems rely on statistical techniques of varying levels of sophistication, as well as other mathematical tools such as linear algebra, matrix operations, etc.; they  often but not always utilize massive datasets, and (again, often but not always) immense computing power.

Numerous sub-domains or applications of AI/ML exist, including recommendation systems, computer vision, natural language processing (NLP), prediction models, and myriad others. Examples include Amazon’s product recommendation engine; Netflix’s show and movie recommendation engine; Pandora’s recommendation engine; predictive policing (PredPol); facial recognition (Clearview AI); self-driving cars (Waymo); news outlets writing stories using AI systems; and a long, long list of many others.

One thing all AI/ML systems have in common is they are based on two core components: an algorithm, and a dataset (or datasets). Even when considering deep learning models – which many correctly point to as “black boxes” – these are ultimately driven by dataset(s) and algorithm(s), one or both of which can be biased.

At its most basic level, an algorithm is a set of instructions. Anyone can write an algorithm without writing any computer code (of course, implementing these algorithms using code in the fastest and most efficient manner is one of the pursuits of computer scientists).

A simple analogy is a recipe for chocolate chip cookies. To make the perfect chocolate chip cookie, you need 1) the right recipe (set of instructions), and 2) the right ingredients (and in the right amounts, and of high quality!). The right recipe – your instruction set – is your algorithm. The right ingredients (in the right amounts, and of high quality) is your datasets that you feed into your algorithm.

Keeping this analogy in mind, it should become clearer why the right “ingredients” – the right dataset(s) – that you feed to your AI/ML algorithm can make a huge difference. In your baking endeavors, if you use sub-par ingredients, you will get unappetizing cookies. In your AI/ML endeavors, if you use the wrong dataset or representation of dataset, your algorithm can make recommendations that are wrong or even downright harmful.

One example of potentially harmful recommendations of AI/ML systems resulting from biased datasets comes from what are known as “criminal risk assessment” systems. These AI/ML-based systems ingest large amounts of historical data about crime recidivism rates, they apply algorithms to these data, and they give a prediction as to whether or not a specific individual is likely to commit another crime – and therefore, whether or not the court should grant that person parole. What’s the problem here? One of the problems is that the system described here can only make predictions based on what has happened in the past; but perhaps the person in question truly has reformed and is a changed person. Such a change would not be reflected in these data. Additionally, the data are population level data; they may in fact be useful and accurate for predicting how a group of convicted offenders is likely to behave as a whole in terms of recidivism; but applying population-level insights to a specific individual is fraught with moral issues, let alone the statistical problems with doing so.

To take this same thinking and apply it to a realistic business application, let’s say your company sells two products: Product A, and Product B. Product B is a brand new product that you just launched one month ago, so you have very little historical data on actual sales figures. Product A has been sold very successfully by your company for 15 years, but it is starting to show its age. Because you’ve been selling it for 15 years, though, you have extensive historical data on your sales for it – who buys it, why, how often, at what price, how have they responded to promotions, etc.

Now let’s say an unenlightened colleague of yours recommends applying an AI/ML algorithm to your data to identify the best sales prospects for Product B. What are some of the potential problems here? If you use the historical data that is overwhelmingly based on sales from Product A, you may receive any number of bad recommendations – nobody wants to buy the product, the pricing is all wrong, you need to promote it in the wrong ways, etc. Moreover, perhaps Product B is really aimed at an adjacent market to the one you’re already serving – if this is the case, basing recommendations for how to promote the product to existing customers who have little need for Product B can be wasteful at best, disastrous at worst.

If your organization is considering implementing or has already implemented some form of AI/ML system to improve your business processes, you’re on the forefront of today’s digital revolution. You should, however, be sure you’re asking your vendors (if you purchase outside technology) or your technology team (if you develop these solutions internally) questions not only related to the fairness and reliability of the algorithms they have chosen to implement, but also the “ingredients” – the datasets – that they have used to feed these algorithms.

 


 

About the Author

Bryan is Assistant Teaching Professor with UMKC’s Bloch School, and Managing Director for Venture Creation with UMKC’s Regnier Institute for Entrepreneurship & Innovation. You can reach him at bootsbr@umkc.edu

Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

3 Things to Watch in Supply Chains

By Larry Wigger

It is nearly impossible to digest the latest coverage of Covid-19, without reading or hearing of severe supply chain disruptions.  Whether it is tales of toilet paper shortages at the grocer, delays in Amazon Prime deliveries, or critically low stock of ventilators and masks, everyone is painfully aware of gaps in supply chains.  Does all of this spell the end of the great experiment in globalization, outsourcing in low-cost countries, and private sector management of public services?  Absolutely not, but there will be deep, long-term revisions to our economy and the way government and industries conduct business.

Resurgence of Vertical Integration

During the current pandemic, supply chain disruptions have been numerous and obvious.  Frequently, those shortages include a perceived lack of manufacturing control.  As foreign production is involved, many are left to wonder why a country would so jeopardize its security.  Let us first clarify terms and concepts, as confusion does not help.

Outsourcing speaks of the transfer of processes an organization used to do for itself, to another.  That new supply chain partner may well be within the same country or even the same facility.  Businesses and governments frequently determine that manufacturing a component or conducting a service need not be a core competency for them.  In such cases, it can make very good sense to contract with another party who has deeper expertise and perhaps greater scale.

There are many other valid strategic reasons organizations elect to outsource, including cost, quality, access to technology, and those reasons will remain.  Engaging a strong supplier in a long-term relationship can be a powerful risk mitigation strategy, giving you redundant sourcing options in times of crisis.  But what Covid-19 has shown many organizations is the need to rationalize their sourcing strategies and conduct thorough risk assurance, especially when critical stock is involved.  Look for businesses and government to begin insourcing, self-performing again those items deemed of high risk or high impact.

Reshoring of Critical Supply

Of particular concern in this current pandemic are the instances where vulnerabilities to foreign interests have been revealed.  China reportedly acted in their own interest by seizing inventories of goods and manufacturing capacity for N95 masks and other critical items.  As a result, US businesses could not supply their customers, including government and healthcare sectors.  These disruptions included both outsourced production and US companies with manufacturing facilities in China.

While outsourcing speaks of transfer of processes to another, offshoring is the practice of relocating an operation that was previously domestic, to a foreign country.  The two terms are frequently confused, but they are critically different.  When offshoring, a business may remain the primary owner of the assets involved, though at times joint ventures are the legal structure.  For example, it is GM’s design studio and factory in China; they have not outsourced production of Buicks to a Chinese company.  Similar to outsourcing, there are many valid strategic reasons to move an organization’s operations offshore.  Doing so frequently gains access to lower cost labor, desired raw materials, or new consumer markets.

But just as with outsourcing, offshoring brings its own set of risks.  Covid-19 illustrated the false sense of security organizations carry when they choose to offshore their own operations, much less outsource them in a foreign country.  Both businesses and governments will be actively re-assessing their supply chains for existential threats.  Governments have long restricted the transfer of cutting edge technologies with military applications and we should expect them to do the same with critical medical and food supplies going forward.

Rise of the Medical-Industrial Complex

Most will be vaguely familiar with the phrase, military-industrial complex, as it has been in colloquial use even longer than outsourcing or offshoring.  These iron triangles of government, military, and industry are frequently publicly protested.  Though not new, less familiar is the similar concept of medical-industrial complex.  Yet, its exponential growth may well be the largest long-term result of Covid-19.

Buried deep within the eight-hundred-plus pages of the CARES Act are the bones of what will become the next great exponential economic engine.  Medical breakthroughs will result, businesses will be built, profits will be made, and political careers will flourish; but it remains to be seen at what cost.  A few short weeks into this pandemic and the US is already straining against its libertarian heritage, with some citizens concerned about a perceived erosion of civil liberties.

For the moment, we seem to have grown comfortable with the idea of massive deficit spending.  It may be that this new machine being built will set the flywheel spinning again at a pace sufficient to feed its hunger and quell our populist fears of debt and deficit, once and for all.  The medical-industrial complex is built at a national level, so only a few fortunate nations will have the sovereign currency and economic growth necessary to sustain such activity.  Long-term investment commitments of such scale have the potential to greatly improve the realities of many, while also creating new chasms of inequity and inequality.


About the Author
Larry Wigger currently serves UMKC’s Henry W. Bloch School of Management as Assistant Teaching Professor of Supply Chain and Operations Management.  Larry is in the latter stages of his PhD in Economics at UMKC and holds both a Master of Science in Supply Chain Management and a general MBA from Elmhurst College and a BA in Business Administration from William Jewell College.  With over twenty years of progressive and varied management experience, Larry’s expertise includes the full range of supply chain management activities, strategic leadership in multiple business start-ups, as well as, operations, project and program management.

Larry’s experience includes 15 years in the petroleum industry, frequently focused on supply chain management roles, including all facets of demand planning, material forecasting, strategic sourcing, contract negotiation, tactical procurement, 3rd party logistics, continuous improvement, life-cycle cost and sustainability.  Additionally, Larry has held equity leadership positions in multiple start-ups across the construction and project management industry.  These activities have included consultancy and at-risk construction work for major global petroleum, retail, and hospitality clients, support services in the recent fracking boom, and three years of post-earthquake construction projects in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

Photo by frank mckenna on Unsplash

Business Interruption Insurance in the Age of Covid-19

By Don Dagenais

A large number of businesses are now closed because of the sheltering orders resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic, and a result there are enormous business losses being accumulated almost everywhere. Aside from cutting expenses and dipping into reserves to keep the basic bills paid, what can businesses do?

One possibility is business interruption insurance. Most, but not all, businesses carry some form of business interruption insurance as part of their regular insurance packages. The question is whether the insurance covers businesses losses arising from the current pandemic situation.

Many business owners are getting a straightforward “no coverage” response from the insurance companies or brokers with whom they speak. However, that may not be the correct answer, for there are several types of business interruption insurance and different policies have different wordings for their exclusions. There are no “standard forms” for such policies.

Has the Business Suffered a Loss?

The first question to ask is whether the business has suffered a “loss” which triggers the policy.  Of course the business has suffered a loss – an inability to sell its products or services, the resulting loss of income, perhaps an inability to receive shipments of necessary components or ingredients needed for manufacture or assemblage, possible claims for breach of contract —  and so forth.  But the question is whether this kind of “loss” is the kind covered under the policy. 

Most commercial property policies insure against “all risks of direct physical loss of or damage to” the covered property (or some variant of that language).  So the issue in an age of Covid-19 is whether the virus is a “direct physical loss.” Clearly tangible, overt physical damage is covered. But is this physical damage?  Some are arguing that the virus is a physical invasion of the body, thus causing physical damage (just look at hospitalizations for proof of that), which makes normal economic activity impossible. The insurance company may take a different view. 

The policy may define some of these terms, which may help with the interpretation. Also, the question of whether the business has been directly affected, e.g. whether employees have actually tested positive for the virus and/or have been hospitalized, may be relevant. Those businesses suffering direct consequences of the virus may have clearer claims than those businesses whose employees have not tested positive, but which are nonetheless closed because of governmental decrees. 

Also, consider the use of the word or in the above-quoted language. The policy language may cover direct physical loss or damage to the property.  If this is the language, the insured has an argument that there has been “damage” to the business because of the stay-at-home orders, lack of customers, inability to receive deliveries, etc. even if there might have been no actual physical damage.

Contingent Business Interruption

Many insurance policies have a second kind of coverage called “contingent business interruption” insurance. This is coverage for the interruption of the business caused by your inability to secure essential supplies from third parties such as suppliers, or your inability to provide services or goods to your customers. 

Sometimes this coverage is worded as coverage for business interruptions arising out of “civil or military authority.” For example, suppose there is a governmental order decreeing that you cannot have any access to your business (a typical non-virus example would be an area of the city closed because of riots, water main breaks, or unavailability of electricity due to a flood or tornado). Or suppose that because of governmental orders you do not have access to your customers (such as when you can have access to your place of business but the customers cannot get there).

The Amount of Insurance

Once your policy is reviewed for whether there is a “loss” or coverage under contingent business interruption provisions, the next question is to see what the coverage amount is. Some policies, although they have one of these coverages, have special sublimits of insurance applicable to these kinds of claims. In other words, the business may not enjoy the full amount of insurance for these particular losses. Of course, each policy should be examined separately as these provisions differ widely.

Is the Loss Excluded by the Policy?

Once we get past the question of whether a “loss” under the policy has occurred, and, if so, what the insurance coverage limit is, the next question to ask is whether the policy has an exclusion which removes the coverage anyway. Insurance policies commonly “giveth” in the insuring provisions, then “taketh away” in the exclusion clauses.

Some policies specifically exclude losses from “communicable diseases” or from “viruses.” Some exclude losses based on “micro-organisms” or “flu-variants.”  Here, the science may come into play. Is the Covid-19 virus a variant of the “flu”? Is it a “micro-organism”?

Keep in mind that your particular policy may not contain such an exclusion, or if it does, it may be worded in such a way that at least affords you an opportunity to make an argument that the exclusion does not apply.

It is well established that an insurer has the burden of showing that an exclusion applies. Therefore, the best course is to file the claim and, if the insurer claims an exclusion, insist that the insurer demonstrate that an exclusion, if present, is applicable to the Covid-19 epidemic.

In making the claim, it is important that the insured business not “give away the store” by using such a phrase as “flu” or “micro-organism,” because using such terminology may in effect be an admission that the losses fall within an exclusion. The best practice is simply to refer to the Covid-19 epidemic and draw no conclusions on your own as to exactly what that is.

Check with your Lawyer

As is so often the case with complex legal issues, a business manager is best advised to provide copies of the policies to their attorneys and have the attorneys conduct this analysis. There could be significant sums involved, and this is no time to be your own lawyer.

(Notes: The author is grateful to Kim Winter and Noah Nash of Lathrop GPM, a law firm with home offices in Kansas City and Minneapolis, for providing much of the information for this article.  Nothing in this article is intended to constitute legal advice, and no attorney-client relationship is established by means of the publication of this article or any reader’s review of it.)


About the Author

Don Dagenais, J.D. practiced in the field of commercial real estate law for 43 years with the firm of Lathrop Gage (now known as Lathrop GPM) in Kansas City, Missouri, where he served at various times as the chair of the Real Estate Department and on the firm’s Executive Committee.

He is a graduate of Grinnell College (Iowa) with a degree in economics and from the Cornell Law School in New York. His career included representation of real estate developers, landlords, tenants, lenders, borrowers, title insurance companies, property management firms and many other types of clients in the field of real estate.

Don has closed commercial real estate transactions in over 40 states plus several foreign countries. He spoke at continuing legal education classes for over 20 years, sponsored by the Missouri Bar Association, Kansas City Metropolitan Bar Association and a number of other sponsors.

He was active in the property law divisions of the Missouri Bar and the American Bar Association and authored several articles in local and national publications in the field of commercial real estate.  He has been an adjunct professor at the UMKC School of Law since 2014 and at the Bloch School of Administration since 2016.

Photo by Matthew Waring on Unsplash

Personal Finance Assessment with Dr. Nathan Mauck

Dr. Nathan Mauck

There has never been a better time than right now to take a close look at personal finances. Create a personal balance sheet to evaluate where things stand and to form a plan on how to best move forward and create lasting financial stability. In this session, Nathan provides a simple method for assessing the current state of your personal finances so that you can prepare better for the future.

Making Digital Transformations Stick

Dr. Brian Anderson

The closure of campus in response to the new coronavirus world forced innovation and creativity as Bloch worked to rapidly adapt our critical processes to a fully digital workflow. It is—for the most part—working, and for many processes far better than we would have imagined.

We are seeing that the digitization often represented changes long in the planning, but absent the impetus to implement, were simply lower priorities. The reason was simple—what we had been doing was “good enough.” Now that we have made the shift in so many of our processes so quickly, our teams are finding even better ways in which we can leverage technology to serve our students, be more responsive, and build resilience into our workflows. It has exposed weaknesses in our thinking about technology and shattered assumptions that we could not move process X, Y, or Z to a fully digital workflow.

As we think about a return to campus, we want to preserve many of these innovations. Here are the things we are doing to make these digital transformations stick, and that may be helpful for your organization.

Collecting Data

I can’t stress this point enough—collecting data on the impact of process changes is critical. To the extent possible, it should be part of the conversation early on in implementing the change. I would also argue that it should not be complicated. At its core, a digitized business process should allow the business to do:

  1. More of something than it could before
  2. Something faster than it could do before
  3. Something more cost effectively than it could do before

 

Ideally, the new workflow accomplishes all three, but even one can justify the usefulness and importance of the newly digitized process. On the return to campus—or the office—there will be a natural tendency to return to the “old way of doing things.” Good data on the value of the new process to the business helps counter that tendency.

Involving More Voices

We often teach the importance of a champion in the organization who is both passionate and persistent in driving technology adoption and workflow digitization. A champion remains important even in rapid disruption. But, we have found that rapid disruption resulted in a much larger group of champions. This is a terrific thing!

Rapid brainstorming, experimentation, and distributed accountability is not—cough-cough—a common way for a university to do its business. But the organic way in which our various teams have embraced new approaches and are leading digitization changes in their workflows has been remarkable. It is flipping our way of developing digitization priorities and empowering our faculty and staff, as broadly as possible, to identify and exploit opportunities to leverage technology and remove barriers. 

Culture of Forgiveness

Something we have made of point of emphasizing—and our faculty and staff have responded exceptionally well—is flexibility, adaptability, and forgiveness. Forgiveness is key. In periods of rapid change and disruption, leaders must provide a license for their teams to fail. This is particularly true when it comes to learning and implementing new technologies.

Hopefully, that failure happens quickly, and lessons learned and applied equally fast. In a sense, it is purposefully lowering performance expectations, not to accept mediocre outcomes, but rather to boost confidence in trying new approaches and new processes. Two phrases we are using around Bloch a lot now are “roll with it” and “we’ll make it work.” Fostering that spirit of adaptability, supported by leaders willing to support fast-failure and learning, will be critical to maintaining and improving newly digital workflows.

For Bloch, rapid digitization has not been without its hiccups and unforeseen challenges. But by using this time to jump-start several initiatives that were in the “it would be nice to do X, Y, and Z” category, we will hopefully make at least X and Y our new ways of working as we emerge from the pandemic, and we will be better able to serve our students and our Kansas City partners now—and in the future.

Photo by Joshua Sortino on Unsplash

The Lessons that Tough Times Can Teach Us

By April Graham

Every generation faces periods of chaos. Some are global, some are local, and all are tragic and disruptive in their own way. As we navigate the uncertainty brought about by the coronavirus, it is our responsibility to cultivate skills essential for the new normal.

The past teaches us that these moments of chaos engender our characteristics of kindness, courage, creativity, resourcefulness, and good old-fashioned grit. So it’s worth taking a break from the news cycle to step back, calm our minds, and focus on what we can learn from this moment and what we can do to make a positive difference now and in the future.

When things go south, needs become apparent and innovation is required. The opportunity: consider how your existing skills and knowledge could be adapted to solve a new problem that you see and get to work solving it. Distilleries have shifted production to making alcohol for hand sanitizer. Companies are exploring ways to retool production to fill gaps in other essential supplies. Need a little more inspiration? Check out this recent article on how COVID-19 Will Fuel the Next Wave of Innovation.

Weaknesses in our public and private systems become more apparent in chaos. Individuals step up and lead grassroots efforts to bridge the gaps quickly. We’re seeing networks organizing through social media and NextDoor to deliver groceries, provide transportation and childcare, and clean public spaces. People are supporting businesses by purchasing gift cards, paying for services even if they’ve cancelled appointments, or supporting virtual adaptations such as the Quarantine Concerts – Kansas City.

During tough times, we learn a lot about our world, the people around us, and ourselves. We surprise each other with our ingenuity. Existing leaders leverage their power and resources to help their organizations and communities be resilient in the face of adversity. New leaders emerge. Our Executive Coach, Dr. Ann Hackett, recently offered insight into leading during tough times and the characteristics demonstrated by successful leaders during a crisis.

Consider what you can do in this moment of uncertainty. Gain new knowledge to help you in your quest. On some day in the future when you look back on this moment, you’ll be proud that you took advantage of this opportunity to strengthen your skills and serve your community.

Share Your Thoughts

We’d love to hear what you, your organizations, and your communities are doing to respond and adapt. We’d also like to do whatever we can to help facilitate connections and knowledge sharing so that you can continue build and implement solutions.

Send me a message at grahamap@umkc.edu to share what you’re doing and what would help you be more effective.

Supply Chain Disruption

By Anthony Vatterott

There is a lot we can learn from disruption.  In supply chains, the firms that correct disruptions quickest grow fastest.  The ones that wait for the supply chain to catch up will not survive.  There are plenty of stories from disruptions past that help us understand that much of what we are experiencing in shortages, stockouts or lack capacity is fundamental to supply chain management ethos:  supply chain managers are expected to anticipate the cost of disruptions and their job is to make the impact of disruptions to the supply chain as minimal as possible.  A good supply chain manager plans for the worst, while managing to the best in class.  One prior disruption that may help us to understand this current disruption due to Coronavirus is the US Longshoreman strike of 2015.

When West Coast ports went on strike during collective bargaining negotiations in 2014-2015, for 10 days in February 2015, the 29 ports on the West Coast of the United States were completely non-operational.  Cost estimates at the time anticipated a potential $2 billion dollars per day would be lost, and a total impact to US Economy was estimated at 1% of GDP [1].

The mean lead time for auto manufacturers to ship a container from Japan to the Pacific South west increased in from 11.9 days in 2014 to 26.9 days in February 2015 and added at least 50 hours to the average berthing time—the time in port—for a container ship at Port of Long Beach.  Other ports like Seattle suffered additional berthing times of from 80 to 100+ hours [2]

The Port of Oakland at the time stated it would take between 6-8 weeks to catch up on the backlog of container ships.

In response to the delays, businesses had to be agile in adjusting the expectations of production, operations and distribution of their products in the United States while at the same time resolving how best to move forward and prevent the same critical disruption in the future.  Luckily, the port strike’s timing had two strokes of fortune helping to change the future of shipping in this country:  1) Shippers were already moving their deliveries to East Coast and Gulf Coast ports; and 2) the Chinese New Year had just started—and in China this means most factories delay operations for weeks while families celebrate the holiday—so the volume of new ships arriving at US ports would at least be reduced in the near term.  However, the longer-term impact on the volume of deliveries to West Coast ports was directly affected by the 14,000 Longshoremen who held out for a new contract.

What can be learned from prior experience in SC disruptions is that we in business—for all of our long-term forecasts and multi-year strategic objectives—are not necessarily and definitely not immediately—aware of how international delays, shut-downs and interruptions to supply flows affect the average consumer, until the impact is felt directly by each of us.

As the response to COVID-19 take on its own critical mass, and as we adjust to a ‘new normal’ where we directly encounter the supply chain disruptions of a global pandemic, we can take the opportunity to evaluate the weaknesses in our transportation networks, supply lines and inventory and warehousing policies under necessity…and this will ultimately help us to deal with other human capacity-constrained business practices as we look ahead to recovery.  In fact, some of the same logic for a man-made disruption to the supply chain can be adhered to for a pandemic and the interruption to the flow of goods and services.

Distribution flows:  where are the bottlenecks?  What are the lead times?  When are plants expected to come online?  The network orientation of the supply chain allows the practitioner to answer the question of what and where do we need to focus our immediate attention?

Transportation Channels:  currently truckers are racing to meet the store demands for functional products.  Foods and sundries, staple goods and grocery stocks are being replenished as a rapid pace.  There remains a critical shortage of truck drivers and therefore the constraint is in skilled workers to move goods around the country.  Some firms have historically outsourced their office and administrative support functions, even to other countries. The pressure on trucking demands should push the cost of labor for truckers upward as capable drivers attempt to cover as many loads as feasible.  The premium cost of additional demand for products however should be off-set by a decreasing price of oil [3] and therefore fuel price reduction, thus reducing the potential for perishable product wastage as was seen during the 2018 Brazil trucker strike, when lack of animal feed delivery resulted in the death of millions of pigs and chickens [4], compromising food security.

Production:  at the same time, healthcare organizations demand new production of critically necessary medical equipment and supplies, including durable goods like sheets and PPE, as well as disposable goods like gowns, booties and masks.  Companies will be manufacturing these products in this country, which will bring back some manufacturing opportunities from overseas.  How fast can we turn on new production plants for necessary supplies? 

Inventory:  currently there is a need for shelf stockers and material handlers to keep products moving in and out of factories, warehouses and stockpiles.  This requires materials planning, space management and increased inventory turnover resulting in shorter cycle times and therefore even more package or material handlers. 

Forecasting:  and this is a difficult topic; how long will it be that we need to supplement traditional manufacturing flows with new production demands.  It is natural to want to throw all resources behind a strong production and distribution effort and careful consideration of maximum and minimum impacts of the spread of disease and its containment are constantly changing the expectations of any forecast.  Forecast planners must be agile and flexible while adjusting (on the fly) to changes in where, how many and how people are being impacted by this disease.  Because of the rapid transmission of this virus, a forecast must consider that by the time products are ready for use, they may be needed somewhere else of more critical demand.  Anticipating the real future demands given the uncertainty of demand, is one of the essential factors in successful production planning, material flows scheduling, and supply chain management.

Where the port lockout of 2015 was only 10 days, the time to recover was predicted to take 3-9 months.  The result of the aggressive recovery by West Coast ports did not prevent firms from seeking alternative channels for distributing their goods from overseas to the United States interior.  As new information tells us the planning time for this response to Covid-19 is up to 18 months, we can proceed with the expectation of long-term, and potentially irreversible changes to the way we conduct business.  Innovation and rapid development of manufacturing capacity, more responsive supply chains and new forms of distributed workflow will evolve from the response to this pandemic, and we will be a more resilient, flexible and powerful global economy because of it.

High value goods impacted by the west coast port lockout [5], and potentially undermined by the Covid-19 response globally, include (amount of product type acquired through export or import):

Non-metallic mining (14.3% in exports, 5.1% in imports)
Agricultural chemicals (10.6% in exports, 8.9% in imports)
Plastics and synthetics (14.5% in exports, 16.5% in imports)
Other chemicals (14.3% in exports, 11.4% in imports)
Petroleum refining (7.3% in exports, 6.3% in imports)
Agriculture, construction, mining and oilfield machinery (8% in exports, 16.8% in imports)
Metalworking machinery (4.6% in exports, 24.9% in imports)
Special industry machinery (4.4% in exports, 46.4% in imports)
eneral and miscellaneous industrial machinery (10.8% in exports, 32.5% in imports)
Computers (1.4% of exports, 17.8% in imports)
Office equipment (1.6% of exports, 24.1% in imports)
Service industry machinery (6.5% of exports, 27.5% in imports)
Electrical industry apparatus and distribution equipment (5.4% of exports, 27% in imports)
Household appliances (9.5% of imports, 40% in imports)
Electrical lighting and wiring equipment (4.8% of exports, 37.4% in imports)
TVs, VCRs, radios and phonographs (7.9 of exports, 41.4% in exports)
Communication equipment (1.7% of exports, 10.5% in exports)
Electronic Components (1.3% of exports, 9.1% in imports)

Because these products rely on assembly and production in plants currently shuttered or under restricted production schedules in China, Japan and Germany for example, the lead time to recover production levels depends on the speed with which China and other trade partners get production back on line.  In the near term, the United States will need to develop manufacturing and production capacity for such products that are critical in treating the infected.

Low value items of high export [5] from the United States–such as meat products (39.5% of exports), dairy (41.5% of demand in exports) and canned or frozen foods (41% of exports) will likely remain in high demand among trading partners and therefore should be easily replenished, as the process of manufacturing such goods is not labor intensive and has been highly automated in the United States.  However, the immediate impact of stockpiling reduces these available supplies and therefore also delays the shipment of such products to other countries where they are needed.  The critical linkage in the Supply Chain is the frozen/refrigerated containerized trucking network. Meat, the highest value product of food categories of goods, may not immediately be able to meet the need of increased demands.  In the near and mid-term, these products should find their way to replenishment; however the lack of available product on shelves during such disruptions points to the underlying need for commercial drivers, stockers, material handlers and refrigerated trucking services.

If the supply chain interruptions of the Coronavirus response globally connote anything, it is that even as supply chain practices develop in sophistication—and even as new software and platform technologies arrive to streamline transportation and warehouse management—we must still adhere to the tried and true business continuity foresight that allows for proactive response to emergent and dynamic disruptions.  For example, consider the demand for roll fabric or roll mesh for gowns or medical masks, or the elastic webbing for straps on personal protective equipment:  the likelihood for such demand is unprecedented unless we look several generations into the past.  However, if we look at other more recent global disruptions like Ebola, SARS or H1N1, the need for such items appears more evident, though on a much more limited scale.

While business continuity is a popular concept in times of trouble, it tends to be overlooked when the ample time to prepare is available.

Firms that are able to anticipate potential disruptions, develop a priority or severity matrix of the risk of interruption and the level of impact to business as usual, and implement processes and procedures to smooth out the wild speculative demands of the market, stand to both maintain market share and reduce the impact of additional costs of operations due to unplanned deliveries.

 

Certainly, if there is one benefit of such a disruption to be found, it is the lessons we take away from our lack of ability to respond, so that they do not happen again.  Meanwhile, as we all work to provide every advantage to our essential workforce during the Covid-19 Response, we can also make note of our own supply chain weaknesses and constantly work toward removing them and replacing them with solid corrective measures to get supply lines flowing so we can better serve our customers as soon as possible.

[1]  https://www.elementum.com/chain-reaction/the-real-cost-of-the-west-coast-port-strike-pt.-1

[2] Akakura, Yasuhiro, and Kenji Ono. “A Possible Risk Reduction of the Negative Impact of Port Blockage by Disasters on the Global Trade and Economy-Case study of US West Coast Port Disruption.”

[3] Saefong, Myra P.  Gas Prices Hit a 3-Year Low—And They’re Headed Even Lower

Barrons, acquired March 19, 2020 12:28 pm ET

https://www.barrons.com/articles/gas-prices-hit-a-3-year-lowand-theyre-headed-even-lower-51584635328

[4] Schlindwein, Sandro Luis, and Ray Ison. “Confronting total systemic failure? The May 2018 truckers’ strike in Brazil.” Systems Research and Behavioral Science 37, no. 1 (2020): 119-127.

[5] Werling, Jeffrey. “The National Impact of a West Coast Port Stoppage.” Inforum Report Commissioned by the National Association of Manufacturers and the National Retail Federation. Available at https://www. nam. org/Data-and-Reports/Reports/The-National-Impact-of-a-West-Coast-Port-Stoppage-(Full-Report). pdf (accessed May 14, 2019) (2014).

Coronavirus and the Stock Market – March 19, 2020 Update

Dr. Nathan Mauck

One week ago I shared my thoughts on making sense of the market reaction to the Coronavirus. At that point, we had witnessed some of the biggest price swings in U.S. history. The price swings that followed dwarfed the recent past including the largest point drop in history and the worst percentage drop since 1987.

Previously, I described my sense of the market narrative as “confused.” Some uncertainty has been lifted, however, it has been with mostly negative news involving massive shutdowns of large parts of the economy. Slowly, we are getting a sense of the potential economic impact and we mostly don’t like what we see.

Narrative Update

Over the past week I’ve been watching three areas in particular: announcements on fiscal policy, drivers of potential firm earnings revisions, and debt market movements. There has been a lot to follow. Massive policy efforts this past week include the Federal Reserve lowering rates to 0%, the Small Business Administration rolling out an emergency lending program, and public discussions of a roughly $1 Trillion stimulus package including sending money direct to most individuals.

These and other actions not included in my list are large in scale, infrequently or never used historically, and relatively rapid. The market was not impressed. For instance, the Federal Reserve announced plans including the interest rate reduction on Sunday the 15th. On Monday the 16th, the Dow Jones Industrial Average saw the largest point drop and second largest percentage drop in history.

It has become clear that the market is looking for good news on the Coronavirus, not on fiscal policy. Jim Cramer has been making this point from the beginning while also advocating for big ideas to address this crisis economically. He points out that payroll for bars and restaurants, which are now mostly closed, hit $309 Billion in 2018. In other job news, the Department of Labor reported a 33% increase in unemployment claims nationally. Many firms have not issued new earnings guidance, but we can start to guess the impact without intervention.

The news from the debt market has not been any better. Yields continue to climb as prices fall. Planned debt issuances in some markets, including state and local governments, have been postponed. Combining the debt market news with the stock market news tells a similar story, folks are seeking cash and safety.

Pockets of Good News

Not all is dark though. Amazon is planning to hire 100,000 people to help meet increased demand for online goods. This provides one example of a fact the market seemed not particularly interested in for the last two weeks, not all firms are impacted the same by this event. Temporary shifts in demand could create some short-term pain, but there is also reason to think that spending will find a way.

Volatility has been a mixed bag, but my interpretation is overall positive. The CBOE VIX is widely used as a fear gauge. The VIX went from 14.62 on February 20, 2020 to 84.56 on March 18, 2020. That is a 478% increase in fear in one month! That said, I like to look at VIX options for hints about what “smart money” is thinking. Right now, option markets reveal a price of bets on VIX dropping three times higher than that for VIX increasing for May 19, 2020 expiring options. In short, traders in this market are betting on a large drop in VIX in the next two months. This is one of the only markets in which I’ve found a positive indicator in the relative short-term, but it is significant.

Where to from Here?

The biggest impact on the narrative surrounding markets and the Coronavirus will be updates about the battle against the virus itself. When good news on that front comes, markets could pivot quickly. The timing of that news is well beyond me.

More fundamentally, this period provides an opportunity to revisit some fundamental elements of our narrative on financial markets and the economy. Supply chain fragility, contingency planning, government solutions including managing rapid labor displacements, and private market innovations will receive a rush of attention from capable and well-intended individuals. We have the chance to emerge not only economically intact, but improved provided that we capitalize on a unique situation.

Leading During Tough Times

Dr. Ann M. Hackett

During a recent EMBA class in HR and Leadership, we were discussing “Turnaround Leadership” by examining leaders from the early to mid-2000s, such as Alan Mulally at Ford and Anne Mulcahy at Xerox.  There is much to be learned from leaders who transform their companies during economic or organizational downturns, just as there is to learn about leadership during our current unprecedented and unpredictable situation across the globe.  Harvard Professor, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, created a model that illustrates what happens during organizational tough times, the spiral that ensues, and the subsequent turnaround behaviors that are required.  There are some interesting parallels and takeaways when we compare turnaround leadership and what is going on around us with COVID-19.

The Cycle of Decline

Kanter’s model goes a bit like this:  When organizations fall on tough financial times, a spiral begins. There is secrecy and denial, blame and scorn, avoidance and turf protection and passivity and helplessness.  In a pandemic, you can see all of these symptoms simply from reading the memes and comments in your social media posts – ranging from denial and blame, to fear and hoarding of basic supplies.  You can even see the very beginning of the spiral if you go back a few weeks in your social media feeds and follow it up to today.  A key aspect of this decline is that once we, as a society, just like business organizations, cease to act together for the greater good, we are less able to effect change and we start to believe we are helpless.  We enter a stage of ‘learned helplessness’, when we face a negative, seemingly uncontrollable situation and we stop trying to change our circumstances.  Learned helplessness can occur even when we do have the ability to effect change, but believe that we have no control over the events happening to us.  What do we do next?

The Remedy

Kanter’s model suggests that turnaround leaders do the following:

    1. Promote dialogue vs secrecy

We see this happening with simulations, models, facts, and advice surrounding the spread of the virus.  Dialogue versus denial has increased dramatically in what we hear and read.  We also know more so we share more.

    1. Engender respect vs blame

We may still be working on this one, though it has improved.  We see evidence of working together toward solutions.  We are shifting from blaming leaders for inaction or actions we do not like to respecting the role our leaders play and most certainly demonstrating respect and supporting those on the front line such as hospital staff.

    1. Spark collaboration vs turf protection

While we are practicing social distancing, we are also doing more to support one another at that safe distance.  We have gone from washing our hands (still the very best advice) to also supporting our local restaurants by buying gift cards and ordering takeout.  We are looking in on our elderly neighbors and helping them with their needs.  Just today, I saw a post advertising online jobs for those recently out of work.  We are starting to work together more.  We seem to understand now that we could be virus carriers harming others, as well as victims, if we fail to follow prevention advice.

    1. Inspire initiative that eliminates helplessness

We have a long way to go and a lot of uncertainty still, however, initiative and routine root out that feeling of helplessness.  We have the technology, so we are working remotely.  We are following advice on social distancing and sanitation.  We are learning to prioritize what we buy and who else might need it.  We need to continue to establish good routines that show initiative and resilience.

Turnaround Leadership in Crisis

During our class, the teams made lists of take-aways and characteristics of the leaders we admire in turnaround stories.  Some of those takeaways apply in organizations as well as our broader issues in society.  These qualities of turnaround leaders include:

    • Clarity around long-term direction
    • Staying true to your values and the values of your organization or society
    • Willingness to step up to an unexpected challenge
    • Learning from others in areas of your shortcomings. Learning all you can to lead.
    • Learning through direct engagement with the people you lead
    • Ability to integrate complex issues into clear direction
    • Courage to go against advisors and to withstand pressure when necessary
    • Having processes and routines that ensure accountability
    • Displaying humility

We see more leaders stepping up to make the tough calls.  We are those leaders too.  Which of these characteristics will you embrace as you lead your family, organization and community out of crisis and into the future?

Making Sense of Big Moves in the Stock Market

Dr. Nathan Mauck

On Monday March 9th, 2020 stock trading was halted for the first time since 1997 and the S&P 500 ended the day down 7.6%. It was a rough day for markets which had lost almost 20% from the all-time highs of late February. This followed multiple other recent big moves in the market including the three biggest daily gains by points in history on March 2nd (+136.01), 4th (+126.75), and 10th (+135.67).

How do we make sense of such huge swings in stock prices? It helps to get back to the basics of value and price. As Warren Buffett puts it, “Price is what you pay, value is what you get.” This quotes makes the claim that price and value may not always match.  Most recently, we’ve witnessed Coronavirus and energy market news drive price swings. But what about longer-term value?

Value is harder to observe. We think it should be based on both the cash flows that a business will generate in the future and the risk of the firm. More cash, greater value. More risk, lower value. Simple enough.

However, investors are constantly processing information to help form estimates of value and there is a lot of data out there. Even worse, we don’t really know what will happen in the future. We can only form an educated guess based on careful analysis.

Panic or Legitimate?

The big price swings of early March 2020 tell us the market is having a very tough time processing Coronavirus news. This is not surprising as it reflects the general global uncertainty on this issue. Most people want to know if these market swings reflect changes in value or price.

If the swings are related to short-term panic rather than long-term fundamentals, then we might rest a bit easier with our investments. If big movements reflect longer-term problems including recession, then it might be prudent to act accordingly as investors and managers.

On the question of how much these price swings reflect reality-based decision making versus panicked responses, I unfortunately don’t have any answers. Clearly there will be lost cash flows for many businesses which will result in a genuine loss of value. The question is how much of this loss will just be postponed and how much will be permanent. The big price swings we are seeing are the market’s attempts to judge this difficult question.

Narrative and Numbers

As we move forward through this volatile period, I find the concept of narrative to be particularly useful. Narratives, or popular storytelling, reflect the ways that average people learn about and communicate financial thinking.

Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Shiller identifies narrative as a driver of economic events. In his book Narrative Economics he notes some famous narratives that proved to have major consequences such as “housing prices can only go up.”

Narratives are appealing to us because they simplify complex issues into more relatable and digestible forms.  The downside is of course that narratives may not reflect reality. Many stories are now circulating about the Coronavirus and many experts are weighing in with predictions. I lack the expertise to tell the difference between reality and myth on this issue.

What I do believe is that the prevailing narrative will drive market responses in the short-term, regardless of the accuracy of the underlying story. As a result, price changes may or may not be meaningful.

Navigating Volatile Times

I certainly listen to other people’s narratives on the market, but it is important to form our own ideas and to challenge the wisdom of the masses. It’s best not to get too worked up about day-to-day market movements. Panicked decision making is not ideal.

The best bet is to look for numbers and other evidence that might point us to a clearer understanding of longer-term value. Some areas I’ll be watching closely in the coming days and weeks are announcements on fiscal policy, potential firm earnings revisions, and debt market movements.

Each one of these events has the potential to impact the prevailing narrative which I would describe currently as “confused.” My prediction, and it isn’t much of a prediction, is that markets will remain volatile until we get a clear narrative. When the clear narrative will come or what it will be when it arrives is not clear to me.

Although this era is relatively unprecedented in many ways, the fundamentals stay the same. As managers and investors, the long-term financial focus is on generating cash and managing risk. Uncertainty is inherent in business and business leaders have proven many times in the past to be more than up to the task of managing it.

What I am Thinking About Today, Veterans Day 2019

Dr. Scott Helm

It’s Veterans Day 2019 and I am sitting in my office in Bloch Executive Hall watching an unexpected snow shower.  For some time, I have wanted to express my gratitude for those who have served in our Armed Forces but have found difficulty in authentically articulating my sentiments.  The majority of my professional training has been in research.  Through research, we identify interesting questions, collect data that will allow us to answer those questions, and draw conclusions based on the analysis of the data.  I am devoted to empirical processes and the value empiricism holds in a thriving society.  But my feelings on Veterans Day, are shaped less by impersonal data and more by personal interactions over my two-decade career in Higher Education.

To be clear, the statistical impact of armed service veterans on the U.S. economy are staggering (and probably worth another article).  According to US Census Bureau, Veterans own 2.52 million businesses.  Most of these businesses are small, with only 3% of veteran owned businesses employing 50 or more people.  Despite their size, Veteran owned businesses generate more than $ 1 trillion in revenue, and have an annual payroll of $ 195 billion.

My personal place of employment, the Henry W. Bloch School of Management, is named after a veteran and one of Kansas City’s great businessmen.  It is the impression of personal interactions with Mr. Bloch and the many student veterans I have taught over the years (and not the statistical summary above) that occupies my thoughts today.

I believe the ideal MBA classroom operates as a learning ecosystem.  Each individual entering brings with them knowledge, skills and experiences that make their contributions valuable.  For most of my adult life, I have played the role of professor – a role often viewed as the purveyor of knowledge.  But in my experience, a classroom in which I am the only person offering knowledge is an arid environment.  To the contrary, and in spite of my initial understanding of my role, the most fertile classrooms I have been a part of, have been a symbiotic experiment of students and professor.  It is from this perspective; I ponder my gratitude for veterans.

Students from every background have offered me valuable knowledge throughout my time in higher education.  But veterans who I have had the pleasure of working with stand-out in a few distinct ways.

Humility.  Because all of the veterans I interact with are graduate students, I am working with individuals have achieved significant ranks in the armed forces.  All have served in overseas deployments and many have played significant roles in military strategy during the last two decades.  Yet when discussing their experiences, all are quick to recognize the contributions of the people they served alongside.  There is never an “I did this” but always a “We accomplished this.”  A skeptic could argue, this is a mere byproduct of effective training – a behavioral veneer.  I disagree.  These same individuals demonstrate the same humility in the classroom, a peer among peers, a student among students. 

Radical Professionalism.  In management and leadership, we often talk about the importance of norms.  Professional standards are key to the establishment of norms.  The military veterans I have worked with in the classroom exhibit what I call radical professionalism.  They do not merely observe professional norms, but based on their training and experiences, they establish a standard and commitment to conduct that serves as an example to peers.  Self-service is always relegated below the mission of team.  In this way, veterans exhibit a work ethic and commitment to values over themselves. 

Empathy. I became interested in design thinking about five years ago.  One of the greatest attractions to me was the central role empathy plays in the model.  We also know from emotional intelligence (EQ) research and other leadership studies, that empathy is critical to effective leadership.  I have found no group of students better able to empathize then veterans.  Even before empathy became a central focus of my work, I was impressed by the desire of veterans to seek perspectives of others.  Even when the topic was a divisive political issue, veterans were leaders in discussions, creating safe spaces for all opinions to flourish.  In my capacity as a facilitator, I have sought to learn from these examples – seeking to understand more than to be understood.

Humility, professionalism, and empathy are characteristics of leaders we emphasize in a graduate school leadership curriculum.  All students come to programs at Bloch with some idea of how these work in an organizational environment. The veterans I have engaged with for two decades, live these characteristics.  They are the teachers of these characteristics in our learning ecosystem.  I am grateful for my time with military veterans.  The character they’ve built through a life of service stands as an enduring lesson for all whom they encounter in the classroom and Kansas City’s business community.

Should We Make Space for Design Thinking in Today’s Business Toolbox?

Dr. Scott Helm

The arrival of new ideas is met with excited early adopters and skeptical detractors. In a space like phone apps or a new basketball shoe, these may be trivial battles best left to market sorting. However, when new ideas are proclaimed to be opportunities for new ways of thinking about and executing business we must listen carefully to the skeptic and temper the excitement of early adopters. It is with this mindset I have found myself thinking about design thinking and its applications for management practice.

Taking my own advice, I sought out criticisms of design thinking to better understand its place in a business’s problem solving tool box. The truth is, there is a dearth of quality writing on design thinking. In one of the more substantive critical pieces, Natasha Iskander argues in a 2018 HBR article, design thinking is not new, preserves the status quo, and is unsuited for uncertainty. If true, these would seemingly render design thinking impotent. Other research has posited innovation through design thinking suffers from the same organizational barriers other innovation approaches encounter. 1 Chief among these are culture, implementation, and threats to power dynamics.

Are these criticisms fair? Is design thinking just a restatement of what we already do? Even if it is novel, does it run into the same barriers as other innovation processes? It appears that the answer is both yes and no. All of the criticisms levied against design thinking are true if you utilize design thinking as process, ignoring the deeper value of the approach.

The real value of design thinking, backed by research (here and here), is in the thinking it promotes. We generally employ a combination of deductive (top down logic) and inductive (bottom up logic) reasoning to solve problems. Design thinking utilizes a third type of reasoning, abductive. Abductive reasoning resembles “satisficing”, the decision-making approach described by Nobel Prize winning economist Herbert Simon. Abductive reasoning starts with observations, like inductive, but looks for only enough information to solve a problem not understand an entire phenomenon – like you would with indictive reasoning in theory development.

Because design thinking is not merely a different process, but instead a different way of reasoning, its application in business is uniquely situated for times of uncertainty that demand more rapid decision making. Below are three business challenges where design thinking and its abductive reasoning strategy allows for successful innovation.

Attracting new customer segments: Business looking to expand to currently unserved populations confront an asymmetry of information.  They can know who they are not serving (at least demographically) but not what motivates this group.  Data on current customers will help, minimizing deductive problem-solving approaches.  Bank of America – Keep The Change, experienced this very problem.  BOA wanted to encourage savings in populations that traditionally did not save.  To solve the problem, they studied the pain points of non-savers.  Through this process, they found many in this population would round up while balancing check books.  This created an opportunity!  The Keep the Change program was built on an existing behavior of a population the bank wanted to serve.  When making purchases with a debit card, BOA would automatically round up to the nearest dollar, depositing the rounded amount into a savings account.  Since its inception, Keep the Change has grown to more than 12 million people.

Better Process for Lower Costs: Data science allows decision-making to achieve a higher level of precision.  However, there are times when the analysis identifies a process failure but can not provide a new solution.  When a process failure calls for a new way of engaging a customer, design thinking can quickly identify and provide a solution that remedies the process and improves the financial bottom line.  This is the case of MRI machines in Children’s Hospitals.  An MRI scan is daunting for most people, but for children the experience can be traumatic.  Walk into an imagery room, you will typically find a sterile environment.  For kids and their parents, this setting only intensifies existing anxieties.  Anxious kids delay entering the room, delay getting on the table, and do not hold still in the machine.  All of these delays cost the hospital money (particularly if the child moves in the machine, which can lead to a second MRI).  To solve this process problem, GE developed the adventure series.  Kids were no longer going to enter an MRI, they would participate in an adventure that begins when the arrive at the hospital and ends in a machine shaped like a tent or ship or other fun theme.  Delays were averted, hospitals saved money, and most importantly, child anxiety was mitigated.

Developing a Brand Identity:  Launching a new product or service line forces a company into the unknown.  Confronted with this opportunity, businesses wrestle with the value they will communicate to customers.  Brand is not a logo, but instead a statement of your value proposition and the basis for building customer loyalty.  Again the work of business analytics can identify prosperous customer segments.  Once identified, design thinking can uncover the customer motivators that will ensure a fruitful entry into the market.  Think about the “sneakerhead” community and Nike.  Twenty-five years ago, Nike was the pinnacle of athletic performance equipment.  The biggest stars of sports, Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods, were Nike athletes.  This continues today with Lebron James and others.  But what about Nike the fashion brand?  That’s right Nike is not just about athletic apparel, they are also about fashion.  Recognizing their shoes were fashion accessories for a segment of consumers affectionately called “sneakerheads”, Nike made the strategic decision to delve into fashion.  They sought partnerships with fashion designers passionate about the brand.  But most importantly they sought to better understand the “sneakerheads”.  In the process, they found that Nike fashion was not just about the product, it was about creating shoes that told a story about culture and history.

Do challenges still exist when implementing design thinking in your organization? Of course! Ultimately, for innovation to flourish there needs to be buy-in from the top. The culture of a business will always dictate the ability to adapt and change. If approached willingly, design thinking can help businesses grow customer segments, stay relevant, and create brand loyalty.

Is there a space for design thinking in today’s business toolbox? Absolutely, and that space sits at the intersection of your known frontier and the uncertainty that lies on the other side.


1 Carlgren, L., Elmquist, M., and Rauth, I. ( 2016) The Challenges of Using Design Thinking in Industry – Experiences from Five Large Firms. Creativity and Innovation Management, 25: 344– 362. doi: 10.1111/caim.12176.

Bloch Executive MBA Public Policy Residency, Washington D.C. 2019

Dr. Scott Helm

The Washington, D.C. Residency is the immersive experience marking the conclusion of the Bloch Executive MBA first year. Study in Washington, D.C. is an extension of the Public Policy and Industry course taken in the second semester of the program. Throughout the course, students are challenged to think strategically about external relations and how engagement with governmental actors is critical to the success of their companies. The Washington, D.C. component of the course exposes students to the federal government ecosystem, including all the private sector actors who are influential in the policy process.

Part of the value of being in D.C. is hearing directly from the people who enact policy. Our trip this year began with former Texas Congressman Martin Frost. Representative Frost escorted students to the House chamber floor where the State of the Union is given each year. While on the House floor (and during the subsequent tour of the Capital), Rep. Frost provided an insider’s view of how policy gets made. Rep. Frost was a sponsor of the bill creating Amber Alerts and he explained that his success on that legislation was aided by his seniority at the time.

The next day students met with a panel of lobbyists and then with Ron Eidshaug, Vice President of Congressional and Public Affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Both the panel of lobbyists and Mr. Eidshaug discussed how companies can position themselves with legislatures to either limit the impacts of harmful legislation or promote beneficial legislation. The day concluded with freshman Congresswoman Representative Sharice Davids who offered the class her perspectives as a new member of Congress, her goals, and her assessment of the culture of Capitol Hill.

Bloch EMBA Students & Faculty with Rep. Sharice Davids – photo courtesy of the EMBA Class of 2020

On day three, the class spent the afternoon with pollster Robert Blizzard of Public Opinion Strategies. During the session, the class was given a crash course on issue and electoral polling. Mr. Blizzard helped clarify the strengths of polling operations, utility for companies, and limitations.

The final day of the residency was spent at the Brookings Institute, a public policy think tank. While at Brookings, the students discussed the role of think tanks in the policy process. They were also privileged to participate in an economics simulation completed by the majority of Congressional staffers. The simulation allowed students to weigh policy benefits against financial costs. It also gave an insider’s view on trainings legislative staff receive to be successful resources for elected officials.

Bloch Executive MBA Students in Washington D.C. – photo courtesy of the EMBA Class of 2020

Our final stop as a class was at the Australian Embassy as these students will be heading to Australia next year to complete their International Residency. To promote continuity between year one and year two of the program, students met with Embassy officers to discuss business relationships between Australia and the United States. With only 21 months to complete the program, our students waste no time as they transition to their final year of the program.

The Washington, D.C. Residency provides students a first person account of federal legislative operations – but that is only half of the value. While in D.C. student teams are also working on policy research projects and each student completes a written and oral legislative testimony. This year’s projects focused on the environment, immigration, education and the gig economy. Teams were given significant blocks of time on days two and three to conduct interviews with experts on their topics. This trip, interviews conducted by teams included the CATO institute, Sen. Chuck Grassley’s office, Rep. Sharice Davids office, Sen. Roy Blunts office.

We look forward to next year when another group of Bloch Executive MBA students hone their skills to become better strategists!

What The %$!# Is Data Science?

Dr. Brian Anderson

It’s certainly a buzzword—perhaps THE buzzword—from the C-Suite to the front line. The word conjures visions of dashboards, big data, and whiz-kid programmers and statisticians turning ones and zeros into insights and ideas that will unleash new strategies, productivity gains, and innovation.

Except that’s not what data science is.

Yes, applied statistics and computer science is a ​part​ of data science, but it’s not the defining element. Data science is fundamentally about workflow—how an organization goes about collecting, wrangling, organizing, analyzing, and communicating data. This workflow is dynamic, proceeds in fits and starts, and when done well, yields insights that informs decision-making, but does not drive the decision itself.

What is the C-Suite’s Role in the Data Science Workflow?

“Far better an approximate answer to the right question, which is often vague, than an exact answer to the wrong question, which can always be made precise.” ~ John Tukey

John Tukey was a professor at Princeton University and a researcher at Bell Laboratories, he was also a pioneer in what we now refer to as data science. To Professor Tukey, the most important consideration in data analysis was understanding the question that you really want to answer with your data. This is the most important role for senior executives in the data science workflow—identifying, defining, and refining salient questions answerable with data.

Asking the right question underpins the entire data science workflow, and it is also the hardest part of the process. If we don’t start with the right question, any data and analyses coming later will have limited usefulness to the organization.

The irony is that the right question typically emerges only after we’ve collected and analyzed data. The reason is that the process of collecting, wrangling, analyzing and communicating data uncovers hidden assumptions, biases, and errors in the data and the data generation process. This is a very good thing, because it reinforces the importance of iterative nature of the data science workflow.

Consider analyzing why a product failed. At first glance, the easy question is to ask whether it was a pricing problem, or a lack of market understanding, or whether the product had the right feature. The problem with all of these problems is that they are both too vague and too nuanced to yield a specific answer, and no amount of “big data” would help to answer such a causally ambiguous question.

One mistake I often see with senior executive is the “one shot” notion of data collection and analyses. The mistake is thinking that we know the right question to ask and that a single round of data collection will yield the “correct” answer to inform a business decision. That is simply asking too much from an inherently noisy, stochastic, and dynamic process. Leveraging data and data science in the enterprise requires embracing uncertainty and variation, and a willingness to engage in continuous improvement, knowing that the firm will never truly reach the finish line.

Turning back to our product failure example, rather than asking whether our pricing strategy was the culprit, we might ask a simpler question, such as whether we employed a similar pricing strategy with a similar product in a similar market, and whether we observed a different result than with our failed product. If the answer is yes, then we might—tentatively—conclude that our pricing strategy may not be the culprit. Some data and some logic, along with an understanding of causal inference, helped guide us towards a more productive question.

A computer can’t replace your judgement

Data science is simply a tool for the executive. Like all tools, the analyses produced by a data science workflow can be more or less useful, depending on the knowledge, skills, and abilities of the decision-maker.
Despite rapid advancements in machine learning and artificial intelligence, computers are far—very far—from being able to replicate the decision-making ability of a human. By far, the most important resource in a data science workflow is the people—the creators and consumers of data. For executives, the leadership challenge of finding the right people, doing the right things, in the right places, ​and asking the right questions​ , remains in managing a data science workflow.

Ultimately, the most important thing for executives to remember when considering where data and data science can—and cannot—add value is that no computer and no amount of data replaces the judgement and critical thinking skills of the people in the organization.

Establishing a causal relationship is hard. Evaluating a causal claim isn’t as difficult.

Dr. Brian Anderson

In a recent WSJ column, Christopher Mims borrows from behavioral economics to offer an explanation for “Why the world seems worse than it is.” The details of the column aren’t important for this post, but a passage caught my attention…

Sometimes known as the availability heuristic, this bias is one reason parents are afraid to let children play unsupervised, though it’s never been safer to be a child in America.

Briefly, the availability bias/heuristic posits that the more recent a piece of information, and particularly information where a person can easily recall the consequences of that information (such as frightening news), the more salient the information is, and the more likely a person is to rely on that information—irrespective of its veracity—to inform a future decision. Mr. Mims posits that the availability heuristic, heightened by the nonstop barrage of information online, is the mechanism for the quote above and also “why people are afraid of shark attacks, even though they’re more likely to drown at the beach.”

Lets leave aside whether the availability heuristic is a true causal mechanism that explains why parents are afraid to let children play unsupervised, and just assume that it is possible. If we were to lay out the causal chain, it might look something like this…

Exposure to Frightening News→Increased Parent Supervision

How might we go about evaluating whether we should put much stock in Mr. Mims’ causal claim, without using sophisticated causal inference frameworks like the Rubin casual model or structural causal modeling?

Start with a thought experiment

One approach is to use a thought experiment to imagine different variables and manipulations for the predictor variable, in this case, exposure to frightening news. For example, we might say that the frightening news was an attempted abduction of a child. To a parent, this is truly horrific, and so it is easy to conclude that a normal reaction would be to increase parent supervision.

Now consider another example, recently in the news, about a parent receiving a visit from child protective services for allowing her 8-year old daughter to take a dog for a walk by herself. To one parent, a visit from protective services might be truly frightening, and so his or her response is to increase parental supervision. But to another parent—and judging by the social media reaction to the story—some might react to the news by decreasing supervision, perhaps in a form of protest.

The key point is that because we can imagine a realistic scenario in which exposure to frightening news does not always increase parent supervision, there is the possibility that meaningful contextual factors, or boundary conditions, are necessary to fully understand when frightening news leads to parental supervision, and when does may not. That is, there might be another important predictor out there—one that might change the nature of the impact frightening news has on parental supervision. If that’s the case, even without knowing what that specific predictor or contextual factor is, we should be a bit skeptical about the strength of the claim and its applicability.

Consider the assumptions

Another approach is to think through the assumptions. Mr. Mims posits that the availability heuristic causes increased parental supervision, “though it’s never been safer to be a child in America.” The implication seems to be that parents are cognizant that it’s very safe today to be an American kid, but despite that knowledge, exposure to frightening news increases supervision, which may not be needed because America is so safe today.

Lets use this assumption that people are aware that it much safer today for American kids than in the past. It seems plausible that people may associate increased supervision with increased safety; after all, the frightening event could be a situation in which a child’s safety may have increased if parental supervision would have been present. In the aggregate then, we would expect knowledge of America being safer for kids not necessarily as an assumption, but as a logical consequence of increased supervision. So in reality, our causal chain may look something like this…

Exposure to Frightening News→Increased Parent Supervision→Kids Are Safer

In this case, one of the assumptions underlying the strength of the causal claim that exposure to frightening event causes increased supervision despite knowing that America is safer for kids today is not nearly as strong if parents are also aware that increasing supervision, in the aggregate, causes America to be safer.

Of course, we are still assuming causality here between exposure to frightening news and increased supervision, but it’s not nearly as strong—increased supervision is simply the mechanism, or mediator, that connects exposure to frightening news to the more important outcome variable, kids being safe. When we put this possibility together with the possibility of contextual factors at play, our skepticism about the causal claims made in the column should increase.

Alternate explanations

Another way to question causal claims is to think about alternate explanations. An alternate explanation is a different causal variable that explains the observed outcome. Lets keep going with the assumption that people are aware that America is safer today, and that they assume that increased parental supervision improves kid safety. Mr. Mims also posits that “it’s never been safer to be a child in America.” The implication is that, in the past, America was less safe for kids, and considering our earlier assumptions, it is reasonable also that parents are aware that in the past America wasn’t as safe.

If we take a step back, time seems to be an important part of Mr. Mims’ argument. In the past, America wasn’t as safe for kids. Parents recognized that America wasn’t as safe, so they increased parental supervision. The net result is that kids are safer today.

So lets put together a new causal model based on parents knowing that America wasn’t as safe in the past, and that they assume increasing supervision increases safety.

Kids Safety in the Past→Increased Parent Supervision→Kids Safety Today

What doesn’t appear in the causal chain? Exposure to a frightening event.

In the model above, assuming similar conditions by Mr. Mims, parents are aware that America wasn’t as safe before, so they decide to increase supervision as a result, which then causes safety to improve. This is an alternate causal model, one that is equally plausible given the same observations about parental supervision and kids safety Mr. Mims uses in the column, but explains a change in parent supervision without exposure to a frightening event as a causal mechanism.

Of course, the original causal model could be accurate; but so could our alternate models.

When you put together the likelihood of boundary conditions, assumptions that weaken the causal claims, and now alternate causal explanations, we are rightly skeptical about the causal claims in the column.

So what to do?

I really do not mean to criticize Mr. Mims column, and his thesis may well be valid. But as we have shown, his thesis may also be invalid. The hard reality is that establishing causal relationships is devilishly difficult, and in the social sciences sphere, truly, exceptionally, challenging.

Truth be told, I think the most useful part of the column comes near the end, where Mr. Mims quotes psychology professor Steven Pinker…

I’m always skeptical of now-more-than-ever observations that are not backed up by time-series data, since they themselves can be products of the availability heuristic and may be inaccurate.

So true. To Dr. Pinker’s point I would add that even with time-series data, absent taking steps to eliminate alternate explanations and confounding factors, skepticism is the safe response to these kind of causal claims.

Bloch Executive MBA Global Residency, Portugal 2019

April Graham

The final semester of the UMKC Bloch Executive MBA includes a course on Global Perspectives in Management. This course concludes with a ten day residency abroad where students explore the business landscape in a specific country, reflect on how it resembles and differs from the United States, and what implications those differences have for management, strategy, and leadership in that country.

Sure, these things can be discussed in a classroom, but there’s no substitute for firsthand experience. The Global Residency pushes students beyond their comfort zone and into a new environment where a different culture redefines the rules of engagement. They must adapt quickly to a new time zone and lifestyle, and be present in each moment. Reflection time is baked into the experience and students discuss observations, unexpected challenges, and new perspectives throughout the course. By the time they leave, they’ve gained deeper insight into a different culture and other ways of “doing business” that they can add to their toolkit and adapt for their work in the future.

For the past four years, each class has selected the destination for their residency from a short list of locations determined by the relationships we have in each place and the suitability of the location for the purposes of the course. This year, the Class of 2019 selected Portugal.

Touring the Lameirinho Textile Company, Guimarães

Over the past ten days, they met with business and government leaders, and learned about the unique culture of the country and what is expected to do business with and in Portugal. They began their journey in Porto where they toured the Lameirinho Textile Company; met with Bruno Ribeiro and learned how Douro Azul financed and rapidly expanded their global cruise and shipbuilding business; and met with Rui Moreira, Mayor of Porto, who spoke about the business environment, social programs, and economic development in Portugal’s second largest city. From Porto, they continued by train through countryside dotted with orange trees and vineyards to their next stop: Lisbon.

Engagements in Lisbon included journalist and television anchor, Paulo Salvador, who spoke about the media industry in Portugal, current challenges, what the future might hold, and…wine. They were also welcomed to the headquarters of Logoplaste by the Chairman of the Board, Filipe de Botton. Logoplaste is a global plastics manufacturing company that also has a location Overland Park, KS. Students learned about plastics manufacturing, environmental challenges, and how Logoplaste is innovating more sustainable and responsible products for their clients. Students toured the Logoplaste Innovation Lab and small batch production room where new award-winning designs such as the Vimágua reusable water bottle are brought to life.

Lisbon, Portugal

One day was dedicated to entrepreneurship. Students visited PME Investimentos, the organization that manages the distribution of government funds to drive entrepreneurship in Portugal, where they spoke with the President of PME, Marco Fernandes, and the Head of Strategy for Startup Lisboa, André Costa, about the growth of the start-up culture in Portugal and the resources and programs fueling it. Later that afternoon, they visited the U.S. Embassy and met with commercial counselor, Rafael Patiño, and economic unit chief, Stephanie Hutchinson, who spoke about the services offered through U.S. Department of Commerce to U.S. companies seeking to expand into Portugal.

Champalimaud Center for the Unknown

Another day was reserved for healthcare. Students visited the Champalimaud Center for the Unknown where they spoke with the President, Leonor Beleza, enjoyed a tour of the center by Maria João Villas-Boas, and learned about the research efforts from Dr. André Valente. The Champalimaud Center is dedicated to advanced medical research of complicated cancers, neuroscience, and blindness. The patient experience is designed for peace, comfort, privacy, and above all – maintaining patient dignity and agency at all times. Students also met with Dr. Fernando Leal de Costa, a former minister of health, who spoke about the public and private health systems in Portugal, including outcomes and funding. Later that evening, they were welcomed to the private residence of the United States Ambassador to Portugal, the Honorable George Glass, for a reception hosted by Mr. & Mrs. Glass with occasional appearances by their rescue dog, Stella.

EMBA Class of 2019 with Ambassador George Glass & Mrs. Mary Glass

On the final day, student teams delivered detailed presentations that they’d been working on throughout the semester on launching a business in Mexico, Canada, China, and Germany. The presentations included an overview of the business culture, identified opportunities and barriers, and detailed an entry and growth strategy for a product in each country. At the close of the final presentations, the class was complete – and celebration was in order.

Next year, instructor Mike Allison and the Class of 2020 will visit Australia for the Global Residency, but first they’re headed to Washington D.C. in May for the Public Policy Residency. We will share highlights from that trip soon.

In the meantime, drop me a note to learn more about our curriculum and how the Bloch Executive MBA helps leaders expand their perspective and enhance their leadership capacity.

A Note of Thanks
I’d like to extend my gratitude to Ambassador Allan Katz, former U.S. Ambassador to Portugal, and Alana Mueller who coordinated the meetings, tours, and engagements for this residency. To Fatima Airey, who welcomed our group warmly and provided exceptional in-country support and friendship. And to Mike Allison, the fearless new instructor for this class who encouraged students to make the most of the experience, facilitated reflection and discussion during the residency, and ensured that everyone consumed the highest possible number of scoops of gelato.

A Recent Graduate’s Reflections on the Executive MBA Experience

Since 2015, a student from each graduating class has been invited to write an entry into the Bloch Executive MBA Legacy Journal reflecting on their journey and offering advice to future students. Thomas Kepka, Director of Marketing at U.S. Engineering Company Holdings, prepared the following reflection for the Class of 2018.

“It’s August 2016, and I’m walking parallel to Brush Creek on the Plaza. Approaching Seasons 52, the sun is bright above the western horizon. People crowd the sidewalk, some moving with purpose to destinations awaiting them. Others meander without any apparent target in mind. Each seemingly unaware of the story that is unfolding for the person next to him or her. I am among the purpose-driven. I have a specific destination in mind, but as I reach for the door, I momentarily pause to acknowledge the sounds that would soon be muffled. The traffic, the splashing fountain, the conversations. I pass through the threshold, and I am briefly blinded by the darkness. This is definitely a different world than the one I had just left. It is quiet; the rush of dinnertime has not yet arrived. But that rush will assuredly come, and as I navigate my way through the empty restaurant, I question how this will go.”

The paragraph above was adapted from the reflection paper I submitted during the Leadership Residency. I confess that because this is my first tip: If you’ve written something in one class that works for another, repurpose it. You’re busy, and you have to manage your time. It doesn’t happen all that often, but when it does, embrace it.

That said, I deliberately reach back to that moment because that team meeting at Seasons 52 was a very important one in my EMBA experience. Entering the program, I was a little unsure whether I belonged. Perhaps you feel that way right now too. Or perhaps you’re beaming with confidence. Either way, at Seasons 52 during the Leadership Residency, I sat at a table with a group of people that were essentially strangers. We got to know each other. We sized each other up. We began the process of acclimating to the grind of the EMBA and the people that would share that experience. Maybe you’re wondering if these people are going to compete with you or try to help you. In my experience, classmates are your support system, not your rivals.

For me, I realized that I belonged in that seat. And while I didn’t realize it at the time, the people that sat at that table—as well as the rest of the cohort—became the most important part of the EMBA experience. The people are the experience. You’ll have wonderful times as well as painful ones with classmates. You’ll be amazed by people in both good and bad ways. You’ll grow. You’ll see others grow. You’ll develop great friendships. You’ll learn so much from them. You’ll teach them as well. Of course, it’s OK to mute the group chat that’s buzzing through the night, especially if you’re trying to sleep in Washington D.C. while others are still learning about what the nation’s capital has to offer.

In addition to the people, the program presents unique opportunities that I will always cherish. Obviously, the residencies away from Kansas City stand out. Our class went to Central Europe, visiting Budapest and Prague. The class before us went to Vietnam, and the class after us appears to be headed to Portugal. It’s incredible to experience the cultures, talk with local people, learn from international business people, and witness how classmates interact outside of Kansas City. By the way, if the letters “SSSS” are printed on your boarding pass, expect special attention from airport security.

For me, much of my success in the program is because of the support system at home. Clearly, if you have a family, the EMBA is an investment and a commitment from more than just you. While I understand everyone has a different situation, and this might not be applicable to you, I wanted to give my wife a platform to share her thoughts on how we were able to get through the program as a family. She is a saint who has incredible patience and strength, and I owe much of my success to her.

Dear EMBA adventurer,

Congratulations on the 2-year journey upon which you are embarking. I am the spouse of a recently graduated student and was asked to share my perspective. Though the journey was foggy on my end, I have just a few items of advice:

Keep the communication open and honest about expectations on a weekly, if not daily basis. Start in the very beginning. If you are holding a full-time job during this time, you will basically be unavailable. It was incredibly helpful for Thomas to put in expected study/school times in our shared Apple calendar, including actual class time and homework time during the evenings/weekends. It helped keep things balanced, as much as it can be (we have two young and involved children). Communication also includes making each other aware of how grateful you are for each other’s hard work and dedication to your goals. Verbalize the gratitude constantly. It’s simple and offers daily saving graces.

Share experiences. Any of them. It helps guarantee face-to-face time and eliminates the alienation of your spouse. Talk about frustrations, successes, classmates you enjoy, classmates you have trouble with, fascinating teachers, anxieties and especially things that you will undoubtedly learn about yourself throughout the grind.

Towards the end, I remember a simple conversation that describes the last couple of weeks. It went like this: Spouse: “I have some work to do, is there anything you need first?” Me: “NO! Just go get it all done!” (This ship was sinking.)

It’s not about grand gestures. If you find you have five or ten minutes of free time, you can save the ship by simply asking that very question – what can I do before I disappear again? Doing seemingly small tasks frequently is exceptionally helpful and maintains your awareness of each other’s struggles.

Blessings and Good Luck!

Again, your experience and situation will be different. I just encourage you to make efforts to give time to those you care about. You will have a life, by the way. You’ll just have to manage it well. The workload does ebb and flow. Enjoy the summer, and just keep pushing when you get back for Year 2.

I’m actually writing this in July, which means I have had a couple months beyond graduation to reflect. The first thing I’ve noticed since graduation reiterates what I have said earlier. When you graduate, you’ll miss those friends you gained along the way. Keep in touch with them. I’m not very good at keeping in touch, but I’m going to be deliberate in doing so. I suggest you do too.

However, while you miss the people, I have not found a single person that has missed the work. There was a lot of energy at that table in Seasons 52, but eventually it turned into a grind, and the enthusiasm turned to surviving the marathon. To be clear, everyone I have talked to is glad they took this journey (even the vocal complainers), but everyone was ready to move on by the end.

Except, of course, when it’s all done, you might find something is missing or you might be asking yourself, “Now what?” My wife tells the story of the first marathon she ran. She trained for months; she worked her ass off. Then she finally ran the race, and she did great. The only problem was that all the work she had done culminated in this one moment and now it was over. She likened it to postpartum depression. I don’t have the qualifications to make that kind of comparison, but there have certainly been mixed emotions since May. There’s the joy of being done. There’s the satisfaction and pride of the accomplishment. There’s also the question of what’s next. There might be a void because something that was so integral in your life is now gone.

I’ve drawn the parallel to a marathon a couple times, so in concluding this entry, I will stay on the theme. Completing a marathon is just about taking steps. That’s easy. You can take steps. Likewise, there’s no task in the EMBA that is too difficult for you. You can do everything the EMBA has to throw at you. The trick is to do it over and over again over a two-year period. You can do it, and you will be better for it. You will have a lot of fun, and you will have frustration, but just keep stepping.

Good luck on your journey. You’ll be glad you took it.

A Different Way of Thinking

Jeanie Sell Latz, J.D.

Over the past few decades many businesses have focused on the sole objective of creating shareholder value without always giving much thought to the reasoning behind this premise. It was often stated that managers had a legal duty to consider shareholders’ interests to the exclusion of other stakeholders—customers, employees, suppliers, and the communities which the businesses serve—even though a legal analysis did not and does not support that position.

This theory that managers have a duty to maximize shareholder returns has led to a focus on the short-term since many shareholders make decisions based on quarterly results. Individuals, as well as institutional shareholders, share in this desire for a quick return on investment. Most of us have been guilty of vanishing companies from our portfolio which have not shown quarter-over-quarter growth without understanding the longer-term strategy of the company.

As with many of our theories and assumptions, it takes a period of time to determine the outcome, and in many cases, the resulting unintended consequences. For instance, it takes at least a couple of decades to determine how our parenting styles influenced the values and ethics of our children. Sometimes after the passage of time, we begin to question if what we think and believe is in our best interest and those around us.

It is at this point that Americans finds themselves today. We are beginning to examine if a singular focus on shareholders really does result in healthy, growing companies which provide continuous, strong returns year after year. We are questioning the high price that this often narrower, shorter-term focus has on society and the potential results on our daily lives. Many Americans are taking the position something needs to change.

As evidence of this growing disillusionment, we are witnessing increasing support for Federal legislation such as the Accountable Capitalism Act, a bill that would require corporations with $1 Billion or more of annual revenues to comply with certain Federal mandates which consider the interests of all corporate stakeholders. Also recently, Senator Marco Rubio proposed ending preferential tax treatment for stock buyback programs—one of the ways which has been used by companies to increase shareholder returns. Most concerning, multiple surveys indicate that the millennial generation is souring on capitalism as the foundation of our economy.

Of course, this theory of singular shareholder focus which often results in short-term profits cannot be solely blamed for these positions. As a society we are also dealing with globalization, disruptive technologies, higher costs of education, and other societal changes. The point here is that the external environment has shifted, and sole shareholder focus is not well positioned given the current intersection of society and business. Companies seeking a successful future are wondering if expanded stakeholder interests might drive increases in shareholder returns. Loyal customers resulting from better, more valuable products; passionate, well-trained customer-focused employees; suppliers interested in joint successes; and supportive politically-friendly communities seem to provide a welcomed platform for corporate prosperity.

This change may be difficult, however, given the cultures and solidarity of thought which have been built around “shareholder supremacy.” Stated in the simplest terms, the following need to occur:

      1. CEO’s understanding of the value of managing beyond short-term profit maximization and championing longer-term thinking within their organizations;
      2. Boards of directors supporting longer-term strategies and holding management accountable for implementation and progress toward the goals;
      3. Shareholders engaging in discussions with companies about long-term value creation; and
      4. Companies providing consistent and frequent information regarding progress on these strategies.

We can and should be optimistic that the situation in which we find ourselves as a society can and will be improved. We are seeing respected and admired companies willing to take the risk of a better future through a longer-term focus. For example, Apple has ended its practice of reporting quarterly sales on its individual products and is concentrating its efforts on longer-term investments. Larry Fink, CEO of Blackstone Group LP, is challenging portfolio companies to develop strategies for long-term growth. Private equity firms, known for their short-term focus, are finding opportunities with longer-term funds. The Carlyle Group LP, and others, now have funds which are positioned to hold the companies in which they invest for a much longer period.

The time has come for a new way of thinking about and valuing the contributions of all stakeholders to build successful businesses for the decades to come. Balancing of stakeholder interests, however, can be difficult and messy. Although good managers can likely rise to the challenge, this approach implies that tradeoffs are required—increased interest in one set of stakeholders requires decreased attention to another. Strategists understand that the best results come from strategies that create new markets for goods and services–instead of fighting with competitors over market share. This same theory can be applied to the creation of shareholder wealth.

Profits are the outcome of organizational efforts. When value is created for all stakeholders including customers, employees, suppliers, and communities, we will likely find this increased value results in increased profits for shareholders. A leader of this approach, Starbucks with its quality products for customers, education and training for employees, partnerships with suppliers and contributions to community, is showing promising results– recently reporting record quarterly revenues and profits. Long-term sustainable shareholder value in the future will come from this different way of thinking.

About the Author

Jeanie Sell Latz, J.D.is a member of the Bloch Executive MBA faculty at the University of Missouri – Kansas City. Dr. Latz completed her J.D. at the University of Missouri – Columbia and has served as executive vice president, chief legal officer and corporate secretary of Great Plains Energy, a Fortune 1000 publicly traded holding company. She currently consults in the area of corporate governance and holds the distinction of Governance Fellow, granted by the National Association of Corporate Directors.

No Strategy Time

Dan Stifter

“Strategy is easy and execution is hard. “ Anyone not heard that before? Bueller?

Couple more classics: “Strategy is about choices.” Hard to disagree with that one.

“Do more with less.” If you haven’t heard or said this, well, hope you’re enjoying your trust fund.

These all appear insightful, but none of them dig deep enough to provide any actual guidance or help.

Execution is hard, and hardly any organization consistently does strategic change well. I see and hear this all the time in the classes I teach, the companies I consult with, and customers of my software firm.

We’re all smart, work hard and care deeply, right? And we all think we’re better at strategy than Machiavelli. So why is strategic change so hard?

Inertia
Fundamentally, we don’t like change. And we don’t really like to think. We want to get up, make the coffee, feed the dog, ignore any Kardashian news while consuming cute pet videos, drive to work and get on with our day. We get SO irritated when anything interrupts our morning routine or our driving routine or our email routine and requires us to actually think.

Inertia prevents us from thinking deeply since the reality is we really don’t think that much in any given day, we mostly react. When was the last time you stopped answering emails or writing a presentation to go have a good think about your strategy and what was really going on with your business? How many hours at work this week did you spend focusing specifically on longer term issues and initiatives?

Optimism/Culture
Another huge culprit for the lack of strategic success is optimism and the culture of almost every organization. It’s not that we don’t like optimism, although hardly anything is more annoying when others are optimistic about stuff they don’t know squat about. But optimism gets companies to say yes to everything, and progress gets to be harder and harder as staffs have become leaner.

Culturally, the boss needs to show lots of activity, and cutting strategic imperatives is rarely a career builder. I had a boss at Coke (where brutalizing employees was an art form) who when I asked for help in setting priorities, said “your priority is to get everything done, and if you can’t do it, I’ll find someone who will.” That’s an actual quote. That’s the norm in our highly competitive world where you believe you’re failing if you don’t try and do every single possible activity that might remotely be a good thing.

Organizations consistently over estimate what they can accomplish in a year. One of the minor functionalities of the strategic planning software that my firm sells is that it adds up time people are expected to spend on strategic initiatives. You know the drill, the annual planning process comes around, you all agree on goals and objectives, and you get put on a bunch of teams to go get strategic stuff done. You can’t really say no to any of them because you like to eat regularly, and you’re off to the races.

There’s always too much work
Our software shows us that organizations typically sign up for about 5 times the amount of work they actually have the capacity to deliver. 5 times. That can be the the equivalent of 10 or more full time employees. Why? Because we’re engaged and want to try to make things better. We’re optimistic. And because no one tells the boss, “yeah, I don’t have time to work on strategic priorities number 3 -5, maybe I can get to that next year.”

So strategy is first about good choices, but strategic success comes from truly understanding organizational capacity and the true amount of work those strategic choices require to come to life.

Learn how to say no, and make it stick. Say “yes” to the most impactful one or two strategic imperatives and actually focus and make adequate resources available to making them happen.

A useful routine is to block out time time several hours per week to do nothing but think about and work on strategy. If you don’t purposefully build it into your routine, the “tyranny of the now” and endless meetings, emails, and fire drills will continually keep you from making any strategic progress.

But first, be bold and make a choice. Then say no to things that won’t get accomplished this year anyway.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

“First rule of leadership: everything is your fault.” Hopper, A Bugs Life

Dan Stifter, MBA

Everyone looks in the mirror and think they’re looking at a natural born leader with all the best attributes of Captain America and Wonder Woman. But according to Gallup, 82% of managers are pretty much complete failures. Less than 1 out of 10 are really qualify as “leaders.” While “managing” is different than “leading,” it’s a close enough proxy to demonstrate that there are very, very few good, much less great leaders out there.

“The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant.” — Max DePree

Want to be a better leader? I strongly believe in Jack Welch’s perspective that “if the rate of change on the outside exceeds the rate of change on the inside, the end is in sight.” In other words, if you’re not changing as a leader, the continuously changing environment will sneak up behind you like a vampire that doesn’t look anything like Edward and suck the life out of you.

Many people think desirable leadership behaviors are things like aggression, extroversion, self-confidence and competence. Yet study after study shows that the two most important leadership behaviors are sensitivity and being articulate. Look at the Max DePree quote – defining reality really doesn’t take up much time, most of leadership is about communicating and executing the plan. Communicating and guiding the vision and helping your team achieve more is the essence of leadership.

What’s the solution? Personal insight and growth. When you were 12 years old you probably wanted to be a “leader” so that you could just tell everyone what to do. Unfortunately, the real world is nothing like that. Autocratic bosses are so North Korea, and that’s clearly not a winning strategy. The first true step of leadership is understanding yourself, how others perceive you, and learning how to use your skills effectively. And you may not like doing it, but that all starts with a journey of personal reflection and growth.

Know Thyself

There are a ton of on-line tools out there to help you figure out your Emotional Intelligence. EQ has four components: self-awareness, social awareness (empathy), self-management, and relationship management (social skill.) Self-awareness must come first. “Know thyself” isn’t about being master of your domain, it’s about truly understanding how your behaviors are perceived by others. Want to be an effective leader? Find out how others see you.

Steve Jobs notoriously lacked self-awareness. It literally got him kicked out of the company he founded. He never became great at managing his EQ, but he had to get better to be successful and ultimately of course he personally grew enough to get to the point where he took Apple from being a relatively small niche company to the most valuable company the world has ever seen.

Becoming a leader is a lifelong pursuit; it is not an event, it’s a process. Start processing.

Three things I am doing to improve my writing

Dr. Brian Anderson

This article resonated with me. It talks about the difference between what literary critics regard as preeminent American literature, and what Americans enjoy reading. Kirsch writes…

Another way of putting it is that when Americans read, we mostly read for story, not for style. We want to know what happens next, and not to be slowed down by writing that calls attention to itself. According to one familiar indictment of modern literature, today’s literary writers are unpopular precisely because they have lost interest in telling stories and become obsessed with technique. In the 20th century, the argument goes, literature became esoteric, self-regarding and difficult, losing both the storytelling power and the mass readership that writers like Balzac, Dickens and Twain had enjoyed.

I couldn’t help but think about the parallels to academic writing. I’m a big fan of Helen Sword’s work, and her books are go-to resources for my PhD students and in my own work as an editor. Sword makes an analogous argument as Kirsch about academic writing, and I couldn’t agree more with her perspective. Most academic writing—including my own—is darn hard to read. Not because of complicated concepts, but because the writing does not engage the reader. It is almost as if we (professors) write to hear ourselves talk!

In the last year or so I’ve made a conscious effort to improve my writing. The main goal is to make my writing more approachable and more enjoyable to read. When I say enjoyable, I am not trying to make an academic paper read like Jurassic Park. My enjoyable metric is a reader who is a) not exhausted by reading something I wrote; and b) finds what I wrote useful.

So here are three things I’m doing to improve my writing…

Keep the (normal) reader in mind

I often use complicated language, jargon, and phrasing in my writing. What I’ve found is that the more complicated my writing, the less clarity I have in my mind about what I want to say. If it isn’t clear to me it won’t be clear to my reader, and complicated writing reflects less clarity of thought. I’m not the first writer to stumble on this concept.

One trick that I’m having some success with is, well, talking to myself. I imagine that I am talking to another professor—an academic, but one not familiar with my topic. What do I say? How do I say it? Then I write down what I’ve said, and start a new round of questions—is that what I meant to say? Am I being clear? Would “other me” believe my argument? It’s an internal dialogue, going back and forth between writer and reader. As an aside, this technique has also helped me make what I write more useful—at least that is the goal!

Use software

I haven’t yet found the silver bullet software tool for grammar and sentence construction. I usually write in R markdown and Google Docs, and neither of those platforms have native grammar tools. But I do have a collection of indispensable tools.

The first is The Writer’s Diet from Helen Sword. I like the simple “diagnosis” of a writing sample, and to be able to see where I need to focus to make it better. For example, the first draft of this post “needs toning” (and it still does because of all the darn verbs!).

The second tool I use is Hemingway Editor. I have an adverb problem, and the tool flags my problem areas. I also like the passive voice flag, and the suggestions for simpler alternatives.

My third tool, and one reason MS Word still has a place on laptop, is the native grammar and style checker. Again, it’s not a silver bullet, but that little blue squiggly line remains a helpful tool to identify grammatical errors. The MS Word grammar tool is how I learned to write in active voice, and I often tell students not to turn in a deliverable if it still has a blue squiggly!

Be my own merciless editor

The last one was the hardest for me to adopt but was also the most helpful. Drawing inspiration from Stephen King, I put myself in the position of being the harshest, most relentless editor I can imagine. No paragraph is sacrosanct; no sentence untouchable; no phrase beyond reproach. Sometimes I hit the delete key. Sometimes I hit Cmd+A, then delete. Sometimes I keep what I wrote as a reference, but usually I start over.

The idea is to avoid getting so attached to a pithy insight that you cannot make it better. I also find that being stubborn about keeping a paragraph or sentence negatively covaries with keeping the reader in mind—the more I want to keep something I wrote, the less useful the words are to the reader. This takes a lot of humility in your writing, but humility is a trait we can all use more of.

By no stretch am I a good writer. I do think I am a better writer today than I was 2-3 years ago, and want to be a better writer 2-3 years from now than I am today. One of the best parts about being a professor is thinking and writing for a living—and we can improve both skills with commitment and practice!

Originally published on August 9. 2018 on Dr. Anderson’s blog

The Grand Theory of Entrepreneurship Fallacy

Dr. Brian Anderson

Periodically, I have a conversation where the topic turns to entrepreneurship researcher’s inability to answer—with precision—why some ventures succeed, some fail, some become zombies, and some become unicorns. Similar conversations surround the topic of startup communities and clusters, and the role of research universities in supporting entrepreneurial ecosystems. Often someone bemoans that we have study after study that addresses only one small piece of the puzzle, or that one study may be contradictory to another study, or that a study is simply too esoteric to be useful.

My response is, well, that’s social science.

I am a social scientist, and proud to be one. I think across the social science domain, including management and entrepreneurship research, we have much to offer the students, businesses, governments, and other stakeholders we serve. But the one thing we aren’t particularly good at is humility. Humility in the sense that when we talk about our research and what we can offer, we’re aren’t always very good at acknowledging the limitations of our work.

Think about predicting the weather. The cool thing about the weather is that it’s governed by the laws of physics, and we know a lot about physics. But even with our knowledge, computational power, and millions of data points, there remains considerable uncertainty about predicting the weather over the next 24, 48, and 72 hours. Part of the reason is that interactions between variables in the environment are difficult to account for, difficult to model, and especially difficult to predict. Meteorologists are exceptionally good forecasters, but are far from perfect. This is in a field where the fundamental relationships are governed by underlying law-like relationships.

The hard reality is that establishing unequivocal causal relationships in the social sciences is extremely hard, let alone forecasting specific cause and effect sizes. We don’t deal with law-like relationships, measuring latent phenomenon makes error always present, eliminating alternate explanations is maddeningly complex, and, well, we’re humans (that not-being-perfect-thing). Interactions among social forces and social phenomena are not only difficult to model, but in many ways are simply incomprehensible.

One technique we use as social scientists is to hold many factors that we cannot control and cannot observe as constant, and to build a much simpler model of a phenomenon than exists in reality. It helps us make sense of the world, but it comes at the cost of ignoring other factors that may be important, or even more important, than what we are trying to understand. It also means that our models are subjective—the answer provided by one model may not be the answer provided by another. In a sense, models are equally right and equally wrong.

Where stakeholders who are not social scientists get frustrated with us is the desire for simple, unequivocal answers. What is also troublesome is that some social scientists—despite knowing better—are more than happy to tell the stakeholder that “yes, I’ve got the answer, and this is it.” When that answer turns out not to work as advertised, the search begins again, although this time with the stakeholder even more frustrated then before.

Making the matter even more complicated are statistical tools and methodologies that seem to provide that unequivocal answer; the effect of x on y is z—when x changes by a given amount, expect y to change by z amount. It seems so simple, so believable, that it’s easy to be fooled into thinking that the numbers produced by a statistics package represent truth, when the reality of that number is, well, far from ‘truth’.

In conversations which turn to wanting simple, unequivocal answers about entrepreneurship—what I call the grand theory of entrepreneurship fallacy—telling the weather analogy helps. But it’s also easy to say that there simply aren’t simple answers. I can’t answer the question because there isn’t an answer; you are trying to solve an unsolvable problem. The best that I can provide, and the best that entrepreneurship data science can provide, is an educated guess. That guess will have a credibility interval around it, and will be narrowly applicable, and be subject to update as new data comes in and new relationships between variables emerge. That’s the best we can do, and be extremely wary of the researcher who says he or she can do better!

We characterize our human experience with uncertainty and with variance. Don’t expect anything better from data science on that human experience.

Originally published on August 9. 2018 on Dr. Anderson’s blog