10 of my “outside influencers”

There have been many people I’ve been fortunate to work with at various companies over the decades of my career who have taught me (or tried to teach me) how to initially approach a problem, how to think about the problem, how to resolve it, and how to communicate my answer to the problem whether in a written report or presentation. I appreciate and respect each of them and the time they invested in me.

This blog post, however, is about people who I consider my “outside influencers”. They are: Vannevar Bush, Lewis Carroll, Clayton Christensen, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould, Kevin Kelly, Marshall McLuhan, Geoffrey Moore, Michael Porter, and Peter Schwartz.

Their ideas have also shaped my research, reports, and presentations. They come from a spectrum of fields including management consulting, evolutionary biology, strategy, and technology. Other than Peter Schwartz and Geoffrey Moore, I have not met or worked with any of them (and most of them would have been impossible to actually meet).

I “found” them by reading their books or articles from my love of reading, my deep interest in technology trends, my projects / consulting / analyst firm engagements, or from ideas that intrigued me that I wanted to learn more about such as scenario planning and complex adaptive systems.

Without any further discussion, here is a short list of my “outside influencers” shown alphabetically by their last name. Their ideas made, and continue to make, a difference in my thinking. I recommend that you choose which one(s), if any, to dig deeper into to guide your thinking. I believe you’ll enjoy your adventures into their work.

Short list of my outside influencers

Vannevar Bush

See the source image

From Wikipedia:

Bush introduced the concept of the memex during the 1930s, which he imagined as a form of memory augmentation involving a microfilm-based “device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.”He wanted the memex to emulate the way the brain links data by association rather than by indexes and traditional, hierarchical storage paradigms, and be easily accessed as “a future device for individual use … a sort of mechanized private file and library” in the shape of a desk. The memex was also intended as a tool to study the brain itself.

Bush conceived the encyclopedia of the future as having a mesh of associative trails running through it, akin to hyperlinks, stored in a memex system.

After thinking about the potential of augmented memory for several years, Bush set out his thoughts at length in “As We May Think“, predicting that “wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified”. “As We May Think” was published in the July 1945 issue of The Atlantic.”

His essay “As We May Think” resonated with me because of his futuristic and far-ranging vision foretelling the communication and computational devices of our current times. You can find his essay in The Atlantic: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1945/07/as-we-may-think/303881/

Lewis Carroll

From Wikipedia

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (27 January 1832 – 14 January 1898), better known by his pen name Lewis Carroll, was an English author, poet and mathematician. His most notable works are Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and its sequel Through the Looking-Glass (1871). He was noted for his facility with word play, logic, and fantasy.

I read both “Wonderland” and “Looking-Glass” several times and throughly enjoyed his writing and characters. Both books offered me visual content to use in presentations (his work is in the public domain but please cite whatever you choose) to reinforce whatever points I wanted to get across to the audience. As a word of caution, do NOT use the Disney visuals from their movies of “Alice in Wonderland” because they are not in the public domain. Disney’s lawyers will do much more than scream “off with your head!”

Clayton Christensen

From Wikipedia

Clayton Magleby Christensen (April 6, 1952 – January 23, 2020) was an American academic and business consultant who developed the theory of “disruptive innovation”, which has been called the most influential business idea of the early 21st century. Christensen introduced “disruption” in his 1997 book The Innovator’s Dilemma, and it led The Economist to term him “the most influential management thinker of his time.” He served as the Kim B Clark Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School (HBS), and was also a leader and writer in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church). (He was also) One of the founders of the Jobs to Be Done development methodology.

I found the professor’s book The Innovator’s Dilemma to be extremely thought-provoking. He describes what “innovation” and “disruption” means (to him) and how “disruptive innovation” can impact industries in general. I’ve considered his ideas about innovation many times throughout my career both as a management consulting and an industry analyst. At one of his talks – a Google Talk available on YouTube – he discusses why a Theory of Competitive Response is the equivalent of his theory of disruptive innovation. I have found that redefinition enlightening when considering if startup insurance firms are actually disrupting the insurance industry. (Hint: No, they are not.)

I continue to have a hard time recognizing disruptive innovation happening in the insurance industry. For me, doing something faster (because of whatever technology or other resource you’re using) means you’re being more efficient but that’s not disruptive innovation; doing something better than you had been doing previously (because of whatever technology or other resource you’re using) means that you’re being more effective but that’s not disruptive innovation. If you’re a new MGA using new(er) technology that doesn’t mean that you’re innovative or disrupting the insurance industry. Is a technology-shaped platform that enables insurance booking disruptive? Other platforms and aggregators already exist – other than you’re magical thinking, there is no disruption occurring.

If there is an equivalent of moving from vacuum tubes to transistors in the insurance industry that would be disruptive innovation to me.

Richard Dawkins

From Wikipedia:

Richard Dawkins Fellow of the Royal Society, Royal Society of Literature (born 26 March 1941) is a British evolutionary biologist and author. He is an emeritus fellow of New College, Oxford and was Professor for Public Understanding of Science in the University of Oxford from 1995 to 2008. An atheist, he is well known for his criticism of creationism and intelligent design.

Dawkins first came to prominence with his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, which popularised the gene-centred view of evolution and introduced the term meme. With his book The Extended Phenotype (1982), he introduced into evolutionary biology the influential concept that the phenotypic effects of a gene are not necessarily limited to an organism’s body, but can stretch far into the environment.

In The Blind Watchmaker (1986), Dawkins argues against the watchmaker analogy, an argument for the existence of a supernatural creator based upon the complexity of living organisms. Instead, he describes evolutionary processes as analogous to a blind watchmaker, in that reproduction, mutation, and selection are unguided by any designer

The Selfish Gene, The Extended Phenotype, and The Blind Watchmaker all had a strong impact on me. They triggered my desire to read more about evolutionary biology, complex adaptive systems, and chaos theory. Dawkin’s thinking provided me several ways to think about insurance markets and their potential evolutionary paths.

Stephen Jay Gould

From Wikipedia

Stephen Jay Gould (September 10, 1941 – May 20, 2002) was an American paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and historian of science. He was one of the most influential and widely read authors of popular science of his generation. Gould spent most of his career teaching at Harvard University and working at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. In 1996, Gould was hired as the Vincent Astor Visiting Research Professor of Biology at New York University, after which he divided his time teaching between there and Harvard.

Gould’s most significant contribution to evolutionary biology was the theory of punctuated equilibrium developed with Niles Eldredge in 1972. The theory proposes that most evolution is characterized by long periods of evolutionary stability, infrequently punctuated by swift periods of branching speciation. The theory was contrasted against phyletic gradualism, the popular idea that evolutionary change is marked by a pattern of smooth and continuous change in the fossil record. … Gould was known by the general public mainly for his 300 popular essays in Natural History magazine, and his numerous books written for both the specialist and non-specialist. In April 2000, the US Library of Congress named him a “Living Legend”.

Gould made evolutionary biology “accessible” to me: he wrote in a manner that some describe as “bread and butter”. I only read two of his books: Full House: The Spread of Excellence From Plato to Darwin and The Panda’s Thumb. But, his ideas kept driving my interest in evolutionary biology as well as complexity theory. Between Dawkins, Gould (and Daniel Dennett), I began to think more broadly about how these concepts applied to the insurance industry. So much so, that around the year 2000 I was fortunate to team with David Bradford on presentations to insurance and technology audiences as well as a series of articles focusing on the lessons that business ecosystems (specifically insurance ecosystems) could learn from natural ecosystems. Our articles were published in Best’s Review and LOMA’s Resource Magazine.

Kevin Kelly

From Wikipedia

Kevin Kelly (born 1952) is the founding executive editor of Wired magazine, and a former editor/publisher of the Whole Earth Review. He has also been a writer, photographer, conservationist,  and student of Asian and digital culture.

Kevin Kelly came to my attention while I was working as a management consultant. Several colleagues asked me if I had heard of Kelly’s book Out of Control (actually, Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, and the Economic World) and I said no. I bought it and found it extremely pertinent to my interests in evolutionary biology, technology, and complex adaptive systems, including sense-and-respond dynamics.  

Marshall McLuhan

From Wikipedia

Herbert Marshall McLuhan CC (July 21, 1911 – December 31, 1980) was a Canadian philosopher whose work is among the cornerstones of the study of media theory. He studied at the University of Manitoba and the University of Cambridge. He began his teaching career as a professor of English at several universities in the United States and Canada before moving to the University of Toronto in 1946, where he remained for the rest of his life.

McLuhan coined the expression “the medium is the message” in the first chapter in his Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man and the term global village. He even predicted the World Wide Web almost 30 years before it was invented. He was a fixture in media discourse in the late 1960s, though his influence began to wane in the early 1970s. In the years following his death, he continued to be a controversial figure in academic circles. However, with the arrival of the Internet and the World Wide Web, interest was renewed in his work and perspectives.

For me, commerce is equivalent to communication. Media is the environment for communication (or commerce). McLuhan’s ideas in “Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man” were revelatory to my conceptualization of insurance commerce, specifically how insurance commerce might evolve. If I was pressed to prioritize this short list of my outside influencers, McLuhan would be in the #1 position. If you’re involved in media or marketing or focusing on the impact of current and emerging technology on commerce, I strongly recommend you read McLuhan’s books (starting with “Understanding Media”).

Geoffrey Moore

From Wikipedia

Geoffrey Moore (born 1946) is an American Organizational theorist, management consultant and author, known for his work Crossing the Chasm: Marketing and Selling High-Tech Products to Mainstream Customers.

Beyond “Chasm”, I also read and recommend Inside the Tornado: Marketing Strategies from Silicon Valley’s Cutting Edge and Dealing with Darwin: How Great Companies Innovate at Every Phase of their Evolution. My focus since 1997 to my current days as a semi-retired technology-focused insurance industry analyst has been researching the current and potential impact of technology on the insurance industry (structure and commerce). Moore’s concepts hit all of my research areas. His writing is extremely approachable.

I had a chance to meet and talk with him at an Applied Net Conference some years ago at a dinner that Applied had the night before the event for him and the industry analysts attending the conference. I was excited to talk with him and only wish our conversation could have lasted longer than it did. Thank you, Applied Systems, for that wonderful opportunity!

Michael Porter

From Wikipedia

Michael Eugene Porter (born May 23, 1947) is an American academic known for his theories on economics, business strategy, and social causes. He is the Bishop William Lawrence University Professor at Harvard Business School, and he was one of the founders of the consulting firm The Monitor Group (now part of Deloitte) and FSG, a social impact consultancy. He is credited for creating Porter’s five forces analysis, which is instrumental in business strategy development at present. He is generally regarded and hailed as the father of the modern strategy field. He is also regarded as one of the world’s most influential thinkers on management and competitiveness as well as one of the most influential business strategists the world has ever seen. He is the most sought after research scholar and his work has been highly recognized by governments, non governmental organizations and universities.

I believe that Porter’s Five Forces Model is an excellent tool to consider a company’s competitive position. I’ve used the Five Forces Model more times than I can count when I was a management consultant. And it represents a strong base to fold in or expand to other competitive concepts such as those from evolutionary biology.

Peter Schwartz

From Wikipedia

Peter Schwartz (born 1946) is an American futurist, business executive, innovator, author, and co-founder of the Global Business Network (GBN), a corporate strategy firm, specializing in future-think and scenario planning. In 2011, Schwartz became an executive at Salesforce.com, where his roles include Senior Vice President of Strategic Planning and Chief Futures Officer.

I read his book The Art of the Long View when I was a co-leader of a scenario planning engagement at IBM. After reading “Long View” I purchased and read several other scenario planning books. Scenario planning dovetails with evolutionary biology, complex adaptive systems, and chaos theory. That means, to me, that all those concepts come together for strategy engagements as well as researching and thinking how insurance markets could evolve.

Who are your outside influencers?

I wanted to share this list of 10 people whose ideas continue to influence my thinking. Perhaps some of them have already influenced you in some manner. I’d like to know who, beyond the people you have worked with or are working with, have influenced you, specifically how they or their ideas have shaped your thinking in your professional life.

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