Author Archives: Ben

Building a Learning Culture, Part 1: The Problem of Organizational Knowledge

Every time I watch a teammate walk out the door for another opportunity, I wonder how much of our organization’s knowledge leaves with them. Surely an organization can “know” more than what’s inside each employee’s head. But how is this knowledge acquired? Where is it stored? Is it written down in documents, or is it tacitly woven into a team’s culture?

These questions are especially pertinent to product managers. Think about a product manager identifying the winning variant of an A/B test. Given enough of these tests, the PM begins to build an intuition for what tends to work. But does the organization share these data-driven intuitions?

I believe that organizational learning can be a source of operational effectiveness and even a competitive advantage. Further, product managers are in a unique position to enable such learning due to the data-driven nature of our work. My team of product managers has been experimenting with a process to translate our product experiments into shared organizational knowledge. This is the first in a series of posts that will describe how we approach building our team’s knowledge base.

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Homer & Helen: My Twenty-Year Odyssey Through the Iliad

I never stop reading a book. But I often lose momentum. The first time I failed to finish the Iliad was during a great books seminar in college. I was terrified to learn that we were expected to read the entire book in just over a week. I calculated how many pages I had to cover each day in order to keep up: 68. After a few days it became clear that momentum was not on my side. I fell behind. We moved on to Herodotus. My partially read Iliad moved to the shelf, where it would remain for twenty years.

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Resentment in the Oresteia: The Power of the People

Every era has a defining anxiety. Ours is an era of technological anxiety. We ask ourselves questions like: What are smartphones doing to us? Is social media making us miserable? We’ve been asking these kinds of questions since the industrial revolution. The early 20th-century folk song “John Henry” and contemporary movies like Ex Machina ultimately pose the same question: Will these machines be the death of us?

John Henry was a newborn baby
Sittin’ down on his mama’s knee
Said, “That Big Bend Tunnel on C-and-O Road
It’s going to be the death of me, Lord, Lord
It’s going be the death of me
– John Henry, as sung by Leadbelly

Aeschylus, judging from The Oresteia and Prometheus Bound, lived in an era of political anxiety. The world is unstable in his tragedies. Power is in flux. Regimes come and go. The tragedies of Aeschylus are concerned with power, and particularly with the instability of power. These works ask the question: In a world without kings, where does power come from?

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This Time Machine Saves Lives

Now if it is in our power to do noble or base acts, and likewise in our power not to do them, and this was what being good or bad meant, then it is in our power to be virtuous or vicious.

Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, 1113b11

Imagine you had a time machine that could save lives.

Imagine you could go back to 2005 to reinforce the levies and floodwalls in New Orleans. Imagine being able to evacuate people from the beaches of Thailand in 2004 before the tsunami hit. Imagine you could prevent the 9/11 terrorists from boarding those planes.

Now consider this: We are in exactly such a position today. We are facing a once-in-a-century calamity with COVID-19 that could claim more lives than all of the aforementioned natural disasters combined. But unlike most disasters, we can actually prevent this one from happening. Our actions over the next few weeks can prevent death, disease, and economic disaster. In fact, given the potential impact of our actions, I’d argue that we will soon be making the most important moral decisions of our lives.

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It’s Time to Act

My family and I are making the decision to keep our kids home from school and stay home from work. Why are we doing this? Anything we can do to slow the COVID-19 outbreak can save lives by evening out the demand for healthcare over time. We are fortunate to be in a position to do this — I know others are less able for many reasons. But I’m posting this because I want to help remove the stigma of taking action for those who are able.

From Carl Bergstrom, Biology Professor at the University of Washington

During the 1918 flu epidemic, St Louis took decisive action two days after the first identified case, enacting “a broad series of measures designed to promote social distancing.” Philadelphia delayed action for 16 days, just two weeks longer than St. Louis. Here is what the death toll from Pneumonia & Influenza (P&I) looked like for the two cities:

We need to be more like St. Louis and less like Philadelphia.

We need to do what St. Louis did. Given how quickly the virus is spreading (look at recent news from Italy and Iran), if we wait until the problem is in our faces, we might already be in grave danger. Those who are able need to act now to protect those who are most vulnerable to this virus.

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