Formula 1 and The Glass Bead game

April 11, 2017

 

The wondrous striving for innovation in Formula 1 racing suggests a modern version of the Glass Bead game in Herman Hesse’s masterpiece and the answer to the question ‘what’s the use of a baby?’

The idea struck me as I admired the unfolding story of the Chinese F1 Grand Prix race recently. Such effort, courage, innovation, political intrigues, strategy. Many ingredients for an MBA elective, I thought.

Then I asked myself the dangerous existential question, what’s the point of it all? At the back of my mind, I dimly recalled the question “what’s the point of electricity?” asked of Michael Faraday, who allegedly replied “what’s the use of a baby?

A little research suggested that my memory had accessed an urban scientific myth. Among other versions, Ben Franklin replied to the question “what’s the use of a ballon?” with a similar answer. Among other unconfirmed replies is another on the subject of the use of his electrical ‘toys’. I cannot say the use, he is alleged to have replied, but I can guarantee that one day you will be able to tax them.

For whatever reason, challenging the purpose of Formula One also reminded me of Herman Hesse’s classic, The Glass Bead Game. The book is set in the future, where the highest of human achievements are conducted in a province dedicated to the life of the mind. Students are all male [a point worth noting]. The pursuit of knowledge involves devoting one’s life to studying and playing the complex Glass Bead game, which I think of as multi-dimensional Go and Chess.

The central character is Knecht. Like much of the book, the name has subtle references, in this instance to Knight (which linguistically relates also to Servant). His journey to enlightenment and to becoming Magister Ludi (Lord of the Game) is traced. An important theme is the value of a community closed off from the outside world.

This question increasingly disturbs Knecht, as his path unfolds. He reaches a personal crisis and leaves the boundaries of the closed province to serve in the outside world. There are several embedded levels of story at work as the book reaches not so much a conclusion as with a necessary incompleteness. At one level, the story ends with the death of Knecht. The narrator asserts there is far more which cannot be told.

It is not difficult to re-examine Formula One through the lens of The Glass Bead Game. The provinces set aside for the pursuit of the FI game co-exist with regions of the outside world, but isolated from them. The boundaries are fixed in time and space for the practice sessions and for the games themselves. Players are admitted from lower level disciplines, F2 being the next highest.

Rules are strictly administered, but as in Glass Bead contests, no two games are identical. Over time, the dedication of industrious and dedicated players enriches the game. Many innovations occur. Sometimes the argument is used that the innovations enrich the well-being of the world outside by modifications to everyday automobiles, making them safer, more energy efficient, so therefore more environmentally efficient. One enterprising group of medical researchers was grant funded to study the efficiency of in-race pit-stop team work, to transfer the knowledge to the logistics in operating theatres.

These arguments would not calm the moral concerns of an F1 Joseph Knecht aware of the general lack of enthusiasm in Glass Bead racing for changes away from clean energy use, or for reducing pollution visited on cities around the world hosting the games. A similar case for real-world gains from the space-exploration Bead Game ended in the weak claim that the intellectual efforts produced the non-stick frying pan. [For the record, the reverse causality has also been suggested for space exploration.]

Electric cars in F1 seem an oxymoron, as their silence is anathema to the tradition of the sport, and a regression from the ultimate purity demanded by initiates and Magister Ludi alike. Revolutionaries dreaming of F1 pioneering electric cars, are being urged to replace the silence with the traditional throaty roar of petrol engines.

These dystopic thoughts of mine cannot conceal the appeal of the wonderful Glass Bead game which is the Formula One enterprise. The lengthy years of rule by Bernie Ecclestone as Magister Ludi seem to be drawing to a close. Whether a Joseph Knecht figure will emerge as new leaders remains open, like the end of Hesse’s masterpiece.

I turn my attention to another ivory tower question I have heard from time to time, in business school workshops. ‘What’s the use of an MBA?‘  As Benjamin Franklin might or might not have said, ‘I cannot tell you exactly, but I guarantee you will be taxed on your earnings from it, one day‘.


A new form of chess with an ancient tradition

January 9, 2017

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The villagers of Ströbeck in central Germany have become the custodians of an ancient tradition of playing chess according to their own rules. An annual chess festival is held, with parades and human chess performances by children from the village school

Origins

Local legend has it that chess arrived in Ströbeck a thousand years ago, when an imprisoned nobleman taught his guards the moves. Chess at the time was spreading to the west from its eastern origins. The game took hold in the region, and became a local obsession. Over time, various imaginative changes took place. These gave the good people of Ströbeck a further advantage over neighbouring villages.

The village has recently received a heritage listing, and hopes to obtain a further honour through a UNESCO international heritage listing.

The chess players of Ströbeck have a habit of frustrating their opponents. Throughout the ages, strangers visiting the village in the foot of the Harz mountains in central Germany have been confronted with a community that has not only been steeped in the “royal game” from an unusually early age, but has also developed its own idiosyncratic rules, including special moves, additional pieces and cryptic commands.

[The Guardian, January 7th 2017]

The addition of a game played on a board with more squares was one innovation. The introduction of pieces with new moves was another.

A tradition arose that anyone seeking to marry someone born in the village has first to play a game of chess (rules to be agreed in advance) against the mayor, who had the power to prevent the marriage, depending on how the game went. Recently, this tradition has moderated to a symbolic fine to be donated to a good cause.

I particularly like another tradition. If, despite the other home advantages enjoyed, a local is losing to an outsider, onlookers can shout in local dialect, ‘Vadder, mit Rat ‘ [Look out, he’s planning a sneak attack].

Such cultural innovations should be encouraged.

Image

Tourist waiting for a bus to take her to the historic village of Ströbeck.

Acknowledgement

To Alex Hough for alerting me to the story


Roger Altounyan: Personal recollections of a medical pioneer

June 8, 2015

My interest in Roger Altounyan began in the late 1970s, during a two-hour car journey as we drove back to Manchester from a conference in Nottingham on innovation processes.

This account adds a human dimension to his discovery of Intal that has benefited millions of Asthma sufferers around the world

Read the rest of this entry »


Michele Ferrero (1924-2015): Obituary of a discrete global leader

February 18, 2015

Ferrero-Rocher-PyramidThe notion of servant leadership is open the accusation of self-serving hypocrisy masking as humility and piety. Michele Ferrero’s life refutes such charges in his case

The Guardian noted:

When Michele Ferrero took over his family’s confectionery firm on the death of his uncle, Giovanni, in 1957, he wrote a letter to his employees. “I pledge myself to devote all my activities and all my efforts to this company,” it said. “And I assure you that I shall only feel satisfied when I have managed, with concrete results, to guarantee you and your children a safe and tranquil future.”

Ferrero was an entrepreneur of a kind Italy throws up from time to time, inspired more by the social doctrines of the Roman Catholic church than by any belief in the merits of the free market.

The case of Nutella

Michele’s father Pietro converted a family pastry shop into a chocolate factory with what became a world-beating product in Nutella, a Business School case favourite. Pietro lived in a region south of Turin famous for its natural products including hazel nuts, a key ingredient of Nutella. Michelle demonstrated his flair for confectionery and marketing when he reformulated and re-branded the choconut spread. Today the product takes around 20% of the world’s supply of hazel nuts.

The Ferrero group

Pietro instilled in Michele a passion for confectionery and product innovation. His son converted the local business into The Ferrero group, a global giant, making him one of the wealthiest of the world’s billionaires.

The business he inherited stands alongside other firms with a socially responsible ethos which transcends the structure of a CSR department. There are parallels with the Tata group of India, and various firms founded under the spirit of what Weber called ‘the protestant ethic’  including another confectionery giant, the former Cadburys group.

Its treatment of employees is at very least of high quality and in many aspects best-practice. The firm initiated the practice of collecting and returning employees to their villages. Medical care and other welfare services are of high quality. Ferrero’s workers have never gone on strike. The organization is active in awareness of and sustainability in the developing countries from which it sources its products.

 The iconic praline

The Ferrero Rocher brand has produced one of the most famous of images, that of the gold-wrapped praline product served at the exclusive party to guests of his excellency. When shown at cinemas, the ad always produces a humorous if ironic response at the incongruance between the product and the intended imagery of top-of-the-market tastes in confectionery.

By your acts shall you be known

The actions of Bill Gates and other modern titans of industry have helped us rediscover The socially responsible entrepreneur. We need not look for other-worldly piety. Critics point to Michel Fererro’s decision to leave Italy for Monaco under threat from The Red Brigades. He remained in tax-enlightened exile. He made no efforts to project or protect his public image.

He deserves to be remembered for his contributions to the well-being of his employees, and the satisfaction of consumers of his company’s products.


Tennis bounces into the 21st century. Will Fifa be next?

January 17, 2015

Fast 4 Federer

Tennis has followed cricket by introducing a short format of the game using technology to support it. Football appears to be struggling to do the same

‘It will ruin the game…It will never catch on….’ Listen to the inevitable cries against sporting innovations which have echoed down the ages.

Cricket’s Big Bash

Cricket’s short form is bringing in new audiences to the format of twenty overs per team, with additional rules to permit more control of time, and so better advertising breaks. Technology reduces human errors by umpires. Gambling is promoted as heavily as the cricket. That’s the heady mix given another boost with The Big Bash competition invented in Australia. Brilliant name isn’t it?

Now for tennis, the Fast4 event

Now another Ozzie-inspired sporting innovation in marketing the fast form of tennis. One advertisement for Fast 4 tennis had Federer and Lleyton Hewett bashing tennis balls between to two fast-moving speedboats. Another great marketing image.

Here come the curmudgeons

The innovations bring out the curmudgeonly spirit.

Oliver Brown of The Telegraph was at his most elegant and nostalgic in defense of the slow.

Hitting balls from a speedboat in Sydney Harbour, Federer has been proselytising the message of his friend Lleyton Hewitt’s ‘Fast4’ tennis idea, a format where the first to four wins the set, where deuce games are resolved not by an advantage system but by sudden-death points, and where players are banned from sitting down at a change of ends.

There is much to admire about defenders of tradition. In more optimistic spirit, it might be argued that the new format offer survival chances for cricket which has already moved from timeless test matches to a not very fast five day format. Tennis has abandoned play to a finish five set matches.

Football and Fifa

FIFA is gallantly retaining its traditional administrative format, with Sepp Blatter seeking re-election as President for the fifth time. The forces of modernization are backing young pretenders with creative plans of amber cards and sin bins.

A bookmaker is sponsoring the celebrity footballer David Ginola to stand for election. But will a fighting fund of a few million euros be enough to prevent the long form of the Presidental game being played by the wily Blatter?


Is the Two Pizza team the future for project management?

September 6, 2014

Amazon Web Services believes it has found the recipe for successful innovation in Two Pizza teams which it claims have launched nearly three hundred new services and features this year

A BBC article on innovation [September 2014] pointed to the fate of once-successful companies that had lost the innovation game to more dynamic and younger competitors. It cited Polaroid, Alta Vista, Kodak among the recent casualties.

The article went over ground that can be found in textbooks of innovation management: Innovate or die. One consultant was quoted as saying “Typically, big companies are much more conservative than start-ups and won’t do anything that is untested or could risk future profits”,  It then listed an approach advocated by Amazon Web Services:

Two Pizza teams

The challenge is to find ways of recreating the energy an dynamism of lean start-up operations within larger companies. Which is where Amazon’s Two Pizza teams come in: Perhaps it is online retailer and web services provider Amazon that best exemplifies lean start-up principles in action.
“Keeping teams small enough to be fed by two large pizzas, giving them autonomy and direct access to customers, encourages risk taking and innovation”, says Ian Massingham, technical evangelist for Amazon Web Services (AWS), the retailer’s cloud platform. “AWS has launched 280 new services and features this year – it’s all about making things better for our customers.”

Most commentators accept there is no one way for big companies to innovate, but they all agree that without innovation your days at the top could be numbered.

As simple as that?

Not really. The basic point has been around as lean thinking since the 1980s and a best-selling book of that name by Jim Womack and Dan Jones, founders of the Lean Enterprise Institute and the Lean Enterprise Academy. Lean thinking is a mix of practical advice for project managers with a philosophic (sometimes evangelical) background for overcoming the functionalism and silos of large organisations. The shift is exemplified in the shift from Fordist production lines to Toyota’s dynamic small teams.

Teams shall not live by Pizza alone

But teams shall not live by Pizzas alone. Amazon already had an innovation culture before the Two Pizza concept was announced. As Massingham said, encouraging risk-taking and innovation requires more distributed leadership, and autonomy to workers. Transformation requires more than a smart name.


Is Amazon under control or under the influence?

July 28, 2014

Bezos bullet train
Amazon announces disturbing financial figures. Its charismatic chairman Jeff Bezos will, as ever, be taking the long view

The mighty Amazon – the company not the river – may be in temporary trouble. Its second quarter sales reported on Thursday [24th July, 2014] showed powerful growth in revenues but unanticipated losses. The results worried the numbers people. Shares, already drifting downward, slumped around 10% on Wall Street the following day.

Taking the long view

Its founder and leader Jeff Bezos is famed for taking the long view. He is a business visionary who fitted the bill as a great leader for the near classic story he has helped bring about at Amazon. His leadership style is restless and remorseless.

He is noted for personal involvement and fermenting a culture of creative challenge. He also likes to ‘back-engineer’ strategy from a desired future to reach and deal with imminent decisions.

The immediate future

The immediate future suggests that his enthusiasm for innovation in the interests of that more distant future may have incurred costs for the present. The ideas at times have breath-taking simplicity. Sometimes there is an initial appearance of craziness that often accompanies great creativity. Think Steve Jobs, or Napoleon even.

This week, the craziness appears to be found in the diversity of effort which may suggest a lack of a cohesive plan. The results were timed to accompany the launch of the company’s new smartphone, the Fire Phone. Other recent plans have included grocery delivery, video streaming, and drone delivery of products.

Not to mention The Washington Post

Then there was the recent takeover of the Washington Post, with assurances from Bezos that under his ownership the newspaper will retain its independence, and certainly without influence brought to bear to advance Amazon’s interests.

Bezos is a fascinating business personality. He has created one of the Century’s most successful businesses with a simplicity of its core competence of rapid, safe product delivery at highly competitive prices. Perhaps its strategic trajectory constrains the creative impulses of its remarkable founder.

To be continued

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