On Leadership and the Liberal Arts

Among the greatest contributions of Plato was his recognition that the training of true leaders requires a broad rather than narrow and strictly practical education.

Plato’s ‘Academy,’ which some consider the first European University, was founded with the understanding that a narrow course of study with a focus on politics alone creates opportunists and demagogues rather than statesmen who act courageously in accordance with true human virtue.

I am formally educated in the liberal arts. But as I have aged, gotten married, embarked on a career, and bought a farm, the amount of time I have dedicated to the liberal arts has all but disappeared.

A farm represents a constant reminder that you can’t just think about improvement. You can’t be narrowly focused on things like progress and innovation. Each day, the things that were once new are getting older and falling apart (like fencing). And if you neglect the old for the sake of the new, at some point you’ll end up with ornament in the absence of foundation, and everything will crumble.

A liberal arts education is never finished.

As I work to cultivate a spirit of true leadership, I am reminded of Plato and how a narrow-focus on leadership for its own sake will, ironically, not produce the qualities of a leader. “All leaders are readers,” as they say.

So I’m going back to my roots, and reacquainting myself with the philosophical and literary traditions that were so important to me for such a long time. I have forgotten a lot since I first read Plato. But I have also gained much experience and perspective.

Where I once studied the tradition as a thing in itself, I now find that I am reading it through the lens of virtue. Where I previously asked questions like “what does it mean,” and “how does it relate to the broader history of ideas,” I am now asking “how can this make me a better person.”

I have changed my routine. Each morning, instead of going to the gym (that’s what the farm is for), I now read from the history of philosophy. The result? Felt increases in empathy, happiness, and creativity. All important attributes of true leadership.

  1. EMPATHY – reading from the philosophical tradition (especially the ancients) reminds one that they are not alone. Perhaps the most important theme in philosophy involves grappling with the reconciliation of unity and multiplicity, or the proper relationship between self and others. In reading, I am reminded at the start of each day that I am not just with others, but for others as well.
  2. HAPPINESS – you can’t achieve something if you can’t define it. For all the disagreement that we see among ancient philosophers, they all agree on this point. In reading about happiness, I am forced to reflect on what happiness is and ask how I can change my life to be more intentional in how I pursue it.
  3. CREATIVITY – creativity involves the ability to make new connections between diverse sets of ideas. The more ideas one is exposed to, the greater the opportunity for creativity. That is just a fact. The more I read, the more ideas I am exposed to, and the more motivated I am to seek out more ideas in unlikely places.

Speaking Market into Product. Speaking Product into Market.

In answer to the question: what is product marketing?

Product Marketing speaks market into product, and product into market.

The role of the Product Marketer is as an expert and advocate for a product’s market. Whether they own or inform commercial strategy, the product marketer works to discover, describe, and define a population of buyers both now and into the future. Through a deep understanding of the competitive landscape and of individual stakeholder personas, the product marketer is tasked with crafting a message that is clear, consistent, and compelling, and is responsible for delivering that message in ways that are relevant and impactful.

Organizationally, Product Marketing sits between Product Management, Field Marketing, and Sales. As an expert in the product’s addressable market, it is the responsibility of Product Marketing to work closely with Product Management to ensure that features on product roadmaps are competitive, produce real value for the customer, and are aligned to the business’s overall commercial strategy. That is what it means to speak the market into product.

But product marketing also has to speak product into the market. Here, Product Marketing creates messaging for use by field marketing when developing high impact campaigns for demand and lead generation. This involves crafting language, positioning, and strategy documents to enable field campaigns, but also collaborating with field marketing to ensure that campaigns are consistent with core message, accurate, and impactful. The messaging that Product Marketing creates is also delivered to Sales, but translated according to the specific needs of that function. This involves the creation of tools and collateral, of course, but also enablement. In order to most effectively enable sales, it is vital for product marketing to have a close relationship with sales team, actively work to understand their unique needs, and deliver training and materials that actually make a difference in the field. Too often, Product Marketers lack a sales background, and so lack empathy. They focus their efforts on product and field marketing support, and merely throw materials over the fence at sales. This not only represents a missed opportunity to garner feedback from the field, but also a missed opportunity to have a significant impact on morale as sales is left to flounder and go it alone.

The role of product marketing is to speak market into product, and product into market. If we take this seriously, then the role of a product marketer ultimately becomes that of an advocate:

  • an advocate of customers who have real needs that we can meet in product,
  • an advocate for product managers who want to see commercial success and widespread product adoption,
  • an advocate for marketing functions that work earnestly to create high impact campaigns, and
  • an advocate for sales colleagues who face huge challenges in the field and are desperate for education and enablement.

When I think about product marketing, then, I ultimately think about the importance of the position to the people it serves, and feel strongly that putting service at the center as a core value of the role increases collaboration, mitigates against an imbalance in priority between product, marketing, and sales, and generates enthusiastic alignment within an organization in support of a common vision.

Product Roadmaps: Just One Damn Thing After Another?

Dostoyevsky once wrote (paraphrasing) that every man needs both a place to be, and a place to go. Others very cleverly talk about the difference between roots and routes, arguing that in order for humans to reach their full potential, they need to know both who they are, and have a vision for what they wish to become.

The same applies to products.

Unfortunately, product managers and humans alike rarely think deeply about either being or becoming. They think of life (that of the themselves or their products) as simply the cumulative effect of adding one thing after another. True, this may be life in the strictest and barest sense, but would anyone call this ‘flourishing?’ I think not.

Let’s talk about product roadmaps.

A product roadmap is NOT a list of features on a timeline. A roadmap is not a prioritized list of feature requests. A product roadmap, insofar as it IS a roadmap, MUST begin with a clear idea of what the product is, and what it aspires to become. It must have roots and routes.

Of course, the way that a product thinks of its roots and routes is always subject to change in the same way as a human being may change their self-conception and aspirations. What is VITAL, however, is that they HAVE a self-conception and a vision for the future.

You can’t steer a parked car.

It’s incredibly easy for product managers to fall into the same trap as humans in general, thinking of their roadmaps in terms of ‘what’

  • WHAT am I going to do?
  • WHAT am I going to do next?
  • WHAT are my product gaps?
  • WHAT are my customers requesting?

But a product roadmap should NOT first and foremost be concerned with ‘what’ questions. It needs to instead be laser focused on the ‘how.’

The ‘what’ is fundamentally about vision.

  • What is it?
  • What should it become?

Only once these questions are asked and answered can a product manager start thinking about creating and prioritizing specific features and enhancements. A clear vision gives a product a ‘why,’ and makes it possible to frame a roadmap as the ‘how.’

In the absence of this vision work (which is hard to do), however, there is no roadmap. There is no beginning. There is no end. Without a clear vision framed in terms of what a product is, and what it aspires to become, a ‘product roadmap’ is simply one damn thing after another.

In Praise of Turmeric

The more I age, the more I think about aging. And with age I am changing my view of health. When I was younger, I thought about health in terms of how good I looked and how much I could lift. Now I am thinking more about health in terms of how well I can manage my energy, optimize productivity, and increase longevity. A change in mindset involves a lot of retraining. It’s really easy to fall back on old ‘health’ habits because they’re familiar even though they are actually counter-productive. Change begins with education. I’m interrogating my current habits and working to develop new ones. In this, I don’t want to blindly follow the advice of ‘experts.’ I want to ask and answer the question ‘why?’

So Turmeric.

I’ve been more intentional about consuming turmeric over the last few months. The health benefits are well-documented, but I don’t want to stop at hearing ‘turmeric is good for you,’ throw a sprinkle or two into my food from them to time, and call it a day. I want to know why turmeric is ‘good for you,’ and how I need to consume it to actually benefit.

Although the benefits of turmeric’s most active medicinal molecule curcumin are many, I want to focus on two specific areas because these are areas that I am personally most interested in optimizing for: anti-oxidation and anti-inflammation.

Turmeric as Anti-Oxidant

Oxidation is a normal and beneficial part of the body’s metabolic processes. It involves the splitting of oxygen molecules into single atoms with unpaired electrons that then go about harvesting electrons from other places in the body: cells, proteins, and DNA. These unpaired oxygen molecules are called free radicals.

I feel like free radicals have gotten a bad rap. Free radicals are not bad. Float around attacking foreign invaders, they’re actually a super important part of the immune system. What IS bad is oxidative stress, which is an imbalance of free radicals and anti-oxidants (molecules that keep free radicals in check by lending them their own spare electrons). Without anti-oxidants, free radicals go beyond their job as a part of the immune system and attack otherwise healthy cells. Too much oxidative stress over time can lead to all manner of dysfunction because … humans are made of cells.

The human body creates its own any-oxidants (Most notable glutathione) just like it creates free radicals. But the body isn’t a closed system. Instead, we are constantly introducing more free radicals as a result of our diet (fried foods, alcohol, pesticides), and as a result of environmental pollutants.

Smoking is of course a terrible idea.

In order to mitigate the harm of oxidative stress on muscles, joints, skin, DNA, glands, organs, and the brain, it’s important for us to do things to support the body’s natural production of anti-oxidants while supplementing through our diet.

That’s where turmeric comes in. The curcumin in turmeric works as a both a free radical scavenger and an anti-oxidant that supports the body’s own natural ability to produce glutathione.

Turmeric as Anti-Inflammatory

Acute inflammation is a good thing. When we’re injured, for example, inflammation takes place as the body increases the presence of red and white blood cells along with additional hormones and nutrients to help with healing.

Chronic or low level inflammation is not a good thing. It happens when a mild inflammatory response is triggered despite the absence of a significant threat. Although it may not have symptoms, the long-term effects of chronic inflammation is that the immune system begins attacking otherwise healthy cells. In the long term, chronic inflammation can lead to cancer, heart disease, and a range of auto-immune disorders.

The curcumin in turmeric works as a powerful anti-inflammatory that is equal in effectiveness to many anti-inflammatory drugs but without the side-effects. It does this by regulating the cellular reception of NF-kB, which is responsible for activating inflammation-related genes.

How to benefit from turmeric

To benefit the most from the curcumin in turmeric, there are a few things you need to know:

  1. The amount of curcumin in ground or fresh turmeric is only about 3% by weight.
  2. Most studies that see significant benefits for curcumin do so at levels between 500mg and 1000mg per day
  3. Curcumin alone is poorly absorbed into the bloodstream, but it can be significantly enhanced when consumed with black pepper at a ratio of 1:100 pepper to turmeric.

What this all means is that, assuming that you want more out of your turmeric than the taste, you need to consume about 7 teaspoons (or about 2.5 tablespoons) each day to achieve a minimum effective dose.

That’s a lot of turmeric. But it’s not so much that it’s impossible.

In addition to using turmeric more in my cooking, here are a couple of other things I am doing to add more curcumin to my diet.

My special blend

My wife recently bought me one of these half-gallon motivational water bottles. Each day I fill it with water and add the following:

    2 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar, which when diluted gives the water a nice kombucha-like flavor while also helping to regulate blood sugar and curb hunger pangs throughout the day
    1 tsp of ground ginger, which is also great as an anti-inflammatory and metabolic aid
    1/2 tsp black pepper, to assist with curcumin absorption

I like to keep my concoction in the fridge at home or at work, and visit it for a drink as a way to reset between meetings and other activities. In addition to meeting my daily curcumin requirement, it ensures that I am hydrated (vitally important for maintaining mental sharpness).

Turmeric Tea

A big jug of yellow sludge may be okay at home and at work, but it can be challenging to wield whilst traveling. For a while I have made it a habit to pack a brick of Numi Organic Aged Pu-Erh. Great for gut health and blood sugar regulation for sustained energy throughout the day. I pop a square in my infuser and refill it throughout the day.

Numi has recently launched a line of turmeric teas. Numi really does it right using only high quality, ethically sourced, organic ingredients. I am a huge fan of rooibos, and so really enjoy the Amber Sun blend for winding down before bed.

Turmeric is not a magic bullet. Truth be told, it’s kind of weird, and it’s super weird that I’ve written an entire blog post about it. But is also pretty neat. Many of us in the West (including myself) aren’t particularly good about our use of spices, either for flavor or for health. We would arguably be far better off if we were. We all need to start somewhere. I’m starting with Turmeric.

Painting the Sky

This is why ‘Digital Transformation’ is so difficult to define

One of the biggest problems with ‘digital transformation’ is that everyone use sthe term differently.

At times, ‘digital transformation’ is used to describe a set of social conditions. At other times, it refers to something we have to do. Still at others (and more commonly) it is something we must consume. Simon Chan has lamented that the term has ‘morphed into a bit of a beast. A “catch all” banner for the marketing of any IT related products and services.” But this ambiguity is not something that evolved over time.

It was there from the start.

According to Chan, the term ‘digital transformation’ was first coined by the Capgemini Consulting group in the first edition of its Digital Transformation Review.  I read it. Truth be told, I wasn’t expecting anything of substance from a rag like this, but it turns out to be a truly remarkable collection.


As a collection of essays, it illustrates the novelty of the concept of ‘digital transformation.’ It demonstrates how, in 2011, people from various perspectives were just starting to grapple with it. It is also remarkable because each author, in their own way, describes digital transformation as a kind of force that is driving change, and to which people and businesses alike are forced to respond.

But there was equivocation around the term even from the very beginning. In “Transform to the Power of Digital: Digital Transformation as a Driver of Corporate Performance” Bonnet and Ferraris of Capgemini (clearly pitching their firm’s consulting practice) also think about digital transformation as an activity … as something that businesses must either undergo (passive) or do (active). For them, digital transformation is a journey that involves adapting a business to meet the challenges and opportunities of a rapidly transforming world: “The journey toward digital transformation entails harnessing its benefits – such as productivity improvement, cost reduction, and innovation – while navigating through the complexity and ambiguity brought about by the changes in the digital economy.” Importantly, Bonnet and Ferraris note that digital transformation should not be an end in itself, and that digital transformation is as much about people as it is about technology.

In addition to describing (1) a force to contend with and (2) a set of activities to be performed, this same collection of essays also frames ‘digital transformation’ as a set of capabilities that businesses can acquire through the consumption of specific technologies. According to Andrew McAfee, for example, transformative technologies fall into three categories: (1) tools to promote data-driven decision-making (i.e. analytics), (2) tools to increase self-organization (i.e. communication tools and social media), and (3) tools for orchestration (i.e. ERP systems).

What can we learn from all this?

‘Digital transformation’ doesn’t mean any one thing. It means a lot of things. It can and is used to describe a lot of different things. I worry when a term permeates business jargon so quickly while also lacking clear definition. Such things are primed for hype, and are easy fodder for ‘marketers.’

(yes, I realize that I’m a marketer…it’s complicated)

At it’s most benign, ‘digital transformation’ is a kind of throw-away word that either gets in the way of, or excuses people from, talking about real issues like the specific ways that particular technologies may help or hinder the achievement of well-defined business objectives.

Terms like ‘digital transformation’ can also be super handy when people are looking for ways to appear knowledgeable when they are actually looking to avoid a more meaningful conversation.

At it’s most damaging, however, ‘digital transformation’ is a term that can be used by marketers, consultants, and industry analysts to generate a sense of dread on the part of prospective customers in order to construct their products or themselves as heroes. I expand on this in another post.

I worry when ‘digital transformation’ is thought about as either an activity that businesses must perform, or as a thing that businesses must consume, because in both cases the result is the commodification of a solution to a problem that is poorly defined.

But I don’t want to throw out the baby with the dishwater.

The concept of ‘digital transformation’ DOES have value if it is used to refer to some of the ways that technology has shaped the social and economic world. It has value because it highlights systematic changes in the purchasing decisions of businesses as they increasingly mirror the kinds of expectation that we have as consumers.

The concept of ‘digital transformation’ has value because it at least gestures toward a set of emerging challenges that businesses must address.

‘Digital transformation’ is a call, and businesses must respond if they are going to survive. The response will differ from business to business, and it will involve a hybrid strategy that incorporates both digital and analogue solutions.

But there MUST be a response.

Nobody ACTUALLY needs ‘Digital Transformation’

I’m really interested in how ideas become things with the power to shape reality. My interest is not idle. It’s also not strictly academic (despite the fact that I have written a book on the subject). It comes from a desire to explode hype cycles by working with businesses to understand and address real issues instead of being distracted by secondary anxieties created by marketers and industry ‘experts.’ 

So let’s talk about ‘digital transformation.’

The language that is most commonly used to describe ‘digital transformation’ makes a crucial mistake. It treats ‘digital transformation’ as a thing. More than a thing, ‘digital transformation’ is talked about as a thing that businesses need and can consume. The result is a framing of business problems along the following lines:

  1. Businesses need ‘digital transformation’ to survive
  2. Your business does not have ‘digital transformation’ 
  3. Therefore, unless your business invests in ‘digital transformation’ now, it will not survive.

That’s super scary.

Framed in this way, technology vendors, consultants, and industry analysts will use the concept of ‘digital transformation’ to define a problem that businesses didn’t know they had, in order to sell them products and services they might not need. 

But the problem is NEVER that a business lacks ‘digital transformation.’ Digital transformation is never an end in itself.  True, some kinds of technology and certain types of transformation may be required to solve particular business problems, but until those actual problems are defined, it is impossible for a business to know whether ‘digital transformation’ is necessary, or to even know what it means. 

So let’s stop talking about ‘digital transformation.’  Instead, let’s put in the hard work necessary to understand our business challenges, and to seek out the right solutions.  Let’s stop talking about ‘digital transformation,’ and instead talk about problem-solving using any and all resources we have available.  

If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.  If you think of all your problems like they require digital solutions, those are the only ‘solutions’ you will see.  Let’s not limit ourselves. Instead, let’s adopt a more holistic perspective that looks to solve well-understood problems using any and all available resources. This includes the digital, of course, but in a way that intentionally complements more analogue solutions like people and processes as well.

Chat bots

AI, Higher Education, and Standardizing Values in Human Decision-Making

Our current use of AI in higher education involves automating parts (and at times the whole) of the human decision-making process. Where there is automation there is standardization. Where there are decisions, there are values. As a consequence, we can think of one of the functions of AI as the standardization of values. Depending on what your values are, and the extent to which they are reflected by algorithms as they are deployed, this may be more or less a good or bad thing.

Augmenting Human Decision-Making

An example of how AI is being used to automate parts of the decision-making process is through nudging. According to Thaler and Sunstein, the concept of nudging is rooted in an ethical perspective that they term ‘libertarian paternalism.’ Wanting to encourage people to behave in ways that are likely to benefit them, but not also wanting to undermine human freedom of choice (which Thaler, Sunstein, and many others view as an unequivocal good), nudging aims to structure environments so as to increase the chances that human beings will freely make the ‘right decisions.’ In higher education, a nudge could be something as simple as an automated alert reminding a student to register for the next semester or begin the next assignment. It could be an approach to instructional design meant to increase a student’s level of engagement in an online course. It could be student-facing analytics meant to promote increased reflection about one’s level of interaction in a discussion board. Nudges don’t have to involve AI (a grading rubric is a great example of a formative assessment practice designed to increase the salience of certain values at the expense of others), but what AI allows us to do is to scale and standardize nudges in a way that was, until recently, unimaginable.

Putting aside the obvious ‘having one’s cake and eating it too’ tension at the heart of the idea of libertarian paternalism, the fact of the matter is that a nudge functions by making decisions easier through the (at least partial) automation of the decision-making process. It serves to make choices easier my making some factors more salient than others, reducing an otherwise large and complex set of factors to a set that is much more manageable. The way a nudge works is by universalizing a set of values by using them as criteria for pre-selecting relevant factors for use in the decision-making process.

I don’t want to say whether this is a good or a bad thing. It is happening, and it certainly brings with it the possibility of promoting a range of social goods. But it is important for us to recognize that values are involved. We need to be aware of, and responsible for, the values that we are choosing to standardize in a given nudge. And we need to constantly revisit those values to ensure that they are consistent with our views and in light of the impact on human behavior that they are designed to have.

Automating Human Decision-Making

An example of where AI is being used to automate the entire decision process is in chat bots. Chat bots make a lot of sense for institutions looking to increase efficiency. During the admissions process, for example, university call centers are bombarded with phone calls from students seeking answers to common questions. Call centers are expensive and so universities are looking for ways to reduce cost. But lower cost has traditionally meant decreased capacity, and if capacity isn’t sufficient to handle demand from students, institutions run the risk of losing the very students they are looking to admit. AI is helping institutions to scale their ability to respond to common student questions by, in essence, personalizing a student’s experience with a knowledge base. A chat bot is an interface. In contrast to automated nudges, which serve to augment human decision-making, chat bots automate the entire process, since they are (1) defining a situation, and (2) formulating a response, (3) without the need for human intervention.

What kinds of assumption do chat bots like this make about the humans they serve? First, they assume that the only reason a student is reaching out to the university is for information. While this may be the case for some, or even most, it may not be for all. In addition to information, a student may also be in need of reassurance (whether they realize it or not). For first generation students especially, they may not know what questions to ask in the first place, and may need to be encouraged to think about factors they may not have otherwise considered. There is a huge amount to gain from one-one-one contact with a human being, and these benefits are lost when an interaction is reduced to a single function. Subtlety and lateral thinking are not virtues of AI (at least not today).

This is not to say that chat bots are bad. The increased efficiency they bring to an institution means that an institution can invest in other ways that enhance the student experience. The increased satisfaction from students who no longer have to sit on hold for hours is also highly beneficial, not to mention that some students simply feel more comfortable asking what they think are ‘dumb questions’ when they know they are talking to a robot. But we also need to be aware of the specific values we assume through the use of these technologies, and the opportunities that we are giving up, including a diversity of perspective, inter-personal support, narrative/biographical interjection, personalized nudging based on the experience and intuition of an advisor, and the ability to co-create meaning.

Is AI in higher education a good thing? It certainly carries with it an array of goods, but the good it brings is certainly not unequivocal. Because it automates at least parts of the decision-making process, it involves the standardization of values in a way, and at a scale, that until now has not been possible.

AI is here to stay. It is a bell that we can’t unring. Knowing that AI functions through the automation of at least some parts of human decision-making, then, it is incumbent upon us to think carefully about our values, and to take responsibility for the ways (both expected and unanticipated) that the standardization of values through information technology will affect how we think about ourselves, others, and the world we cohabit.