Steve Blank on Public Service and Defining the Root of the Problem

Steve Blank on Public Service and Defining the Root of the Problem

Entrepreneur, author, educator, Steve Blank, changed how founders launch startups. Globally, entrepreneurs benefit from his customer development method which became the Lean Startup movement. Now Blank’s Lean LaunchPad class has become the standard for commercialization for federal research.

Steve Blank is seen as one of Silicon Valley’s Godfathers, an adjunct professor of entrepreneurship at Stanford and is a senior fellow at Columbia University.

impactmania’s Paksy Plackis-Cheng spoke with Steve Blank on March 23, 2021 for her partners at UC Santa Barbara, Messaggero Veneto Scuola, and startup accelerators.

 

Part 2 of 4.

 

 


For High School Students and Nonprofit Leaders

 

You have credited the importance of public service. What kind of experiences, learning, and skills does public service teach young people?

I have a strong belief that countries that mandate national service when men and women turn 18 build a much stronger sense of community around the country and also expose people to a variety of beliefs and different cultures. There’s a marked difference in maturity between those people who go through that process and those who don’t.

I think in the U.S. when we ended mandatory military service 50 years ago, it was actually a major mistake. When I say service, I don’t mean military service, I mean any type of service — whether it’s public service in teaching, or working in hospitals, or volunteering for a branch of the military service.

Actually, if I could be president of the world, I would mandate that for every 18-year-old. I think it really is part of the maturity process, of learning that your small social group as you grew up was not the entire world. In my case, I ended up in the U.S. military when I was 18.

I ended up in the middle of a war zone, which I don’t recommend to everybody, but it certainly gave me a competitive edge when I became an entrepreneur. I remember when I hit Silicon Valley people saying, “Do you know how risky it is to start your company? You could go out of business.” I still remember thinking, well, I just came from a place where failure meant you could die.

Obviously I wasn’t the only one who had that experience. It certainly gives you a different perspective. I had been dealing with the world’s largest bureaucracy. It gave me an edge and I think emotionally it made me grow up.

What would your advice be now, when we don’t have a mandated national public service? What skills should young people seek to replicate a similar experience?

Some people have this natural tendency to want to serve. While others want to serve themselves for a while. Some people have religions that mandate service. If you’re Mormon, you spend a year up in service in some foreign country when you’re young. I think lots more people ought to start thinking about it.

As I said, for some people it comes naturally, that at some point in your life, you want to figure out how to serve God, country, community, family, some or all. If you haven’t done any of that, then you’re, I think, living an unfulfilled life.

 And I would suggest you do that as early as possible. Because as you get older, there’s a phase in your life when you have so many commitments: you have kids, you have jobs, you have a mortgage, etc. And then yes, you might be able to do it later in life, which is just fine as well. But then the types of adventures you can have when you’re 65 are very different from the ones you can have when you’re 25.

So I think this notion of “you need to serve somebody or something” isn’t baked into people’s heads and I’m not sure we teach that in a way that gets embedded. As I said, different cultures, different countries, different religions place different emphasis on it. I think it’s pretty important to live a well-rounded life.

Along those lines, how do we encourage smart brains to help solve the world’s societal challenges? Curing cancer, instead of going to work for the largest tech companies to make people click on things.

 In this capitalist system that we’ve built, building social media apps have a lot more appeal than curing cancer, unless you’re more attuned to the fact that saving lives is probably a better way to spend your life.

You know, my daughter who had been selling e-commerce stuff for the first part of her early career, finally woke up and said, “Well, it is like selling sugar to diabetics, maybe I have to do something better.”

Now, she’s the head of sales of a medical AI company curing skin cancer. And while she’s still in sales, she made a conscious decision to do something to better people’s lives. We need to do a better job as educators. I think the government and the countries need to be much more involved in actually putting their thumb on the scale and pointing people to possibilities they might not even know about. Because when you’re young, you’re influenced by what you hear. Or what you read from your peers and you don’t even know these opportunities are available. And you don’t even know the cost of doing one versus another in your life.

And yes, nothing would make me happier than if we had a lot less social media apps, and a lot more life science apps — things that make our lives better and bring us together rather than tear us apart.

What helped your daughter make the decision to change her career path?

I think COVID helped a lot of people wake up and reevaluate their lives around how they want to spend their time. The fact is, there are these people creating vaccines in a year when it used to take a decade. My daughter was pretty smart, reading and thinking about a career change anyway. Being locked down in London, she started thinking about different opportunities. 

[Laughing] In her case she also had her father, when asked, weighing in with his opinion. 

I have friends now at my age who will look back at their careers and say, “Well, I could, I should, I would have with how I live my life.”

I don’t think I could ever look back and say could or should have. I did everything I wanted to do and am proud of maybe at least 95% of it. That’s what I remind everybody: your career and time on earth is finite. When you’re young, it seems like the road is infinite in front of you. But there may be just about 15,000 days in your working career, maybe less. You want to look back and say, “I not only had fun or made money or whatever, but I made a difference.”

To do that when you’re in the middle of it is admittedly hard, but it’s worth putting some time and thought into. COVID, I think, provided a lot of people with the opportunity to reflect — think about new careers. As we’re starting to get out of it, at least in the U.S. it’s a time for everybody to reflect — is this the career you want to be able to look back on and say, this is how I spent my useful time?

What have you changed because of COVID — anything that you are doing differently?

As COVID started shutting down a lot of businesses we created a whole new series of classes helping mostly small businesses. Think about new business models, how to recover, how to manage change, etc. That was our contribution.

I’ve also spent more and more time trying to work with governments. Trying to think about the nature of innovation and entrepreneurship. As changes in the global environment are occurring at a pretty rapid rate, and as you know, government organizations trying to change at a rapid rate is the antithesis of what they know how to do.

When that happens to companies, if they don’t keep up, they go out of business. But countries can’t go out of business. They could fail. Or they can no longer be players on the world stage, if they don’t innovate at the speed of the change around them, and so that’s what I’m trying to help Western democracies do.

One example of how you help governments?

One of the public things we’ve done is we took a version of the class I started, called ICorps and the Lean LaunchPad, which has been adopted by the U.S. government to commercialize science in the United States, and use the exact same class format for other parts of the government. We went out to our Department of Defense and other agencies and created a program called Hacking for Defense. . It’s now in 47 U.S. universities and in the UK and Australia. 

And that framework ended up being incredibly useful to work on large problems that were not necessarily a startup. Spinouts of that program turned into Hacking for Diplomacy, Hacking for the Environment, Hacking for Nonprofits, Hacking for Energy, etc.

What are the required ingredients to get organizations in different sectors working together tackling societal challenges? 

I’m wrapping my head around what you mean by large problems… That’s called the ‘boil the ocean’ problem, and I don’t mean that to be facetious. In the U.S., we are talking about the homelessness problem.

Yes, there are a lot of people on the street, but are they mentally ill? Do they not have jobs? Do they have drug problems? Just saying solve problems, that’s not what we do, I don’t know how to do that. Usually my experience over decades is when you will define a problem at such a large scale, I’ll guarantee you nothing happens.

How do we have a public private partnership successfully? What are some of the ingredients to at least start having a dialogue and tackling some of the social issues? To me, it doesn’t even matter what social issue but how do we collaborate better with all the sectors that are trying their best to address the same issues?

I’ve seen most of them fail, because they don’t actually understand the problem they’re solving. It’s more about the problem definition on day one. You have lots of people spending lots of money, doing lots of types of things without actually figuring out what the root problem is. Almost 95% of the time I see people trying to solve symptoms of problems without trying to spend the time figuring out the problem.

Most of them haven’t spent the time and energy to actually do a deep dive about the root problem.

I don’t want to denigrate the people who passionately want to do X or Y. But when someone says, I want to solve the climate, I want to solve whatever. Well, is that the real problem?

Well, that almost never gets asked, because you believe you know what the problem is. But in reality, problems like climate are inherently complex, made by multiple players. And if you dig deep enough, you actually could find that maybe this one piece or these several pieces could be the linchpins of making major changes, rather than trying to raise tens of billions of dollars just doing X or Y.

And by the way passionate people, particularly when they’re young, still make the same mistake when they’re old, throwing themselves into X and Y financially. Doing problem definition upfront seems incredibly boring and not the exciting part. Well, good luck, go spend the next five years beating your head against the wall, because I can look at my watch and tell you where you’re going to end up.

It doesn’t mean I don’t want you to be passionate. I want you to be thoughtful about how you’re going to be passionate. Sometimes those two things are the Venn diagram’s null set. Being passionate about trying to change the world, versus figuring out which part of the world that we want to change first, are not the same thing.

We have absolutely seen that right? People go someplace in Africa, give out free shoes, and then they create other problems.

Yes, I got invited to help a group in Ghana. The group was drilling wells to provide clean water to villages, and they were finding out why it wasn’t successful. People in those villages were still dying of diseases because of unclean water. So I asked, how is your organization measuring success? The answer? It was the number of wells drilled. I asked, have you gone back and seen what happened to the wells?

Their response was, what do you mean? We drilled the wells and we provided them with clean water. I said, “Why don’t you have a researcher go out and visit the villages?” They took my advice and discovered that of the 325 wells they drilled three quarters of them were filled back in. It turns out that in the villages they were working in, they never did a sociological study. If they did, they would have found out that the social construct of those villages in those communities, the village chief’s wife was the one who was making money selling water.

When you made a public well, you dried up her income, which dried up the Chief’s authority, and so they just filled in the well. All the nonprofit had to do was figure out that the village chiefs’ wife was a power center and make her in charge of the wells, which they eventually did.

But they wasted seven years! I use well drilling as an example. It wasn’t that the goal was the wrong activity, but they confused the activity of drilling a well as the outcome. The outcome wasn’t to drill a well; the outcome was to understand what it required to provide clean water without destroying the existing social system.

 

Part 3 of 4: Steve Blank on Startups Expanding to the U.S. and Silicon Valley’s Godmother

 

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