Generating Power

by rthieme on April 1, 1997

Islands in the ClickstreamToo much change can make us feel powerless. Security comes from predictability and the world today is anything but predictable. Chaos for breakfast and doubt for lunch make for indigestion at dinnertime.

There’s good news too, though. Creativity thrives on the murky edges. If we can stand not knowing for long periods of time, we feel ourselves filling up with power again. The powerful person, it turns out, is not the one who knows but the one who knows that they don’t know. The powerful person is teachable, open, and has what Buddhists call “a beginner’s mind.”

Freedom and power are two things of which everybody wants more than they have. Yet freedom and power are two things of which every human being already has the most that they can have.

It depends on what we mean by freedom and power.

By freedom I do not mean the ability to do whatever we want whenever we want to do it: I mean by freedom our innate capacity to respond to whatever life brings with creativity and resilience.

By power I do not mean the ability to compel others to do our will: I mean by power our ability under any and all circumstances to use our resources to make a real difference, to have positive impact and know it.

Whenever we exercise our innate freedom and power, we find ourselves regaining the center. Powerlessness vanishes. We possess ourselves again.

Which brings us to the power industry.

There’s nothing quite like watching a two billion dollar business falling through the air like an elephant pretending to fly, is there?

The power industry is moving into the looking-glass world of reregulation. When utilities look at the experience of other countries, it’s like tumbling down the rabbit hole.

Consider Argentina: during the early stages of deregulation, competition among thirty-two Argentine electricity generators became so fierce that by the autumn of 1994, they were giving it away for free. That’s right. For one month, the price of electricity was literally zero.

That sounds insane — until you remember what kind of Alice-in-Wonderland world we inhabit.

Scott McNeeley, CEO of Sun Microsystems, outlines a new business model: first you achieve ubiquity, i.e. give away your product for free; then you capture mindshare; then you achieve brand equity; and then you license the product and make … profits. In a world in which some genius looked at spring water bubbling out of the ground and said, “Hey! Let’s bottle that water and sell it!” and Netscape built a web browser and gave it away for free; what used to be crazy sounds like common sense.

It’s a marketplace, Bill Gates points out, that has never before existed on the face of the earth.

The days when utilities could make a profit by redecorating their offices are over. Profits will be made in the distribution of power, not its generation.

Beyond that, I hesitate to predict the future.

The number one object stolen from automobiles in Los Angeles, for example, used to be car stereo systems. So a booming business developed in anti-theft devices. Now the number one object stolen from cars is anti-theft devices.

Who would have predicted that?

I will predict, however, that applying intelligence and creativity to serving the end-user will build an infrastructure of loyalty and brand-equity that makes the system stable.

The infrastructure of customer service is like the physical infrastructure: it’s never noticed when everything’s working. That blinking VCR or digital clock is a sign that, while we were out, the power went off. At the least, we need products that don’t proclaim our mistakes in such bald fashion.

But more than that, we need products that anticipate and meet the needs of consumers before they even notice them. Then they will be bound to us, as Shakespeare says, with hoops of steel.

The power industry will belong, I wager, to those who generate and distribute power reliably AND link, bundle, and package power and power-related products in creative ways. This means engineers must be engineers first, but must also look at products from the point of view of the consumer.

Think of computer applications you have used that were obviously designed by software engineers for themselves without a thought for the end user. People who don’t care about communication will design products that don’t communicate how to use them. They will write thick manuals that a Phi Beta Kappa can’t understand.

Good computer interface designers build symbolic structures like Big Toys using digital information. They begin at the human being and build toward the computer, enabling end-users virtually to climb through a complicated arrangement of digital images and text into the machine. When they succeed, end-users are no more conscious of the interface or the computer than of their contact lenses.

I dream of a VCR I can program without a headache, a digital watch I can set, a smart house that turns on the light, warms the living room, and mixes a drink when I click my remote half a mile from home.

Look around the room at the light switches, the water fountains, the doors — is the function of every artifact clear to you? Were they designed with the user in mind? Can you use them intuitively without reference to a user manual, i.e. signs and instructions?

Freedom and power. Freedom means we have the ability to shift our point of view and see the system we engineer from the perspective of the user for whom it is designed. Power means making the decision to serve that user so thoroughly that they don’t even notice.

One way to face challenges is to redefine problems so they no longer exist. British Rail couldn’t get trains to run on time so they redefined “on time” to mean anything up to one hour late. Their record improved dramatically.

Another way is to start with customers and their real needs and build back to solutions.

Chaos for breakfast and doubt for lunch, indeed. Who wouldn’t prefer simple answers? But these are crazy times, and in crazy times, power looks more like wisdom than winning.

The wise person steers their course by the torchlight of doubt and chaos.

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