Leading Consequential Change Through the Blockchain

By Eric R. Martin and Asim Janjua

“Why Zuckerberg’s 14-year apology tour hasn’t fixed Facebook” | Wired, April 2018
“14 years of Mark Zuckerberg saying sorry, not sorry” | The Washington Post, April 2018
Mark Zuckerberg’s Apology Tour” | The New Yorker, April 2018

Solving the Wrong Problem Perfectly

Just beneath the surface of Facebook’s consistent string of apologies lies a persistent pattern: its penchant for putting technical fixes on problems that are fundamentally not technical in nature. Take fake news for example. On the surface, filtering algorithms appear to be a straightforward technical fix. If fake news doesn’t reach the eyeballs of susceptible readers, they’ll act or vote based on sounder logic and reason. Or so the thinking goes. Facebook’s pattern of apologies followed by earnest but ineffective “solutions”, a pattern which permeates Web 2.0 tech companies, is actually emblematic of a flawed leadership mindset. A blockchain powered internet fundamentally questions this mindset and calls on us to develop one more aligned to the values, challenges and opportunities of Web 3.0.

According to Adaptive Leadership, a somewhat unconventional leadership practice developed at Harvard, fake news belongs to a class of problems known as “adaptive”. While technical problems can be solved by a technical expert through the use of logic and pure intellectual horsepower, adaptive problems cannot. Examples of technical problems abound in blockchain, such as scalability, hardware security, transaction confidentiality, and the payment lag of transactions. On the other hand adaptive problems — or better put, adaptive challenges — can’t be solved by an expert because the solution is unknown, or unknowable. They reside in our hearts and guts, not just in our heads or in our code. In blockchain they include such things as establishing appropriate parameters for data privacy, fully engaging in data transparency efforts, building human-to-human trust, enacting self-governance and self-sovereignty, and dealing with the thorny topic of blockchain’s high carbon footprint. Furthermore blockchain challenges us, as humans, to abstain from exclusivity for the sake of inclusivity and equality. Tackling adaptive problems challenge us to upend legacy mindsets, protocols, institutions and market infrastructure. These deeper questions are not amenable to technical fixes alone. Distinguishing between technical and adaptive problems is critical for those seeking to lead consequential change through the blockchain.

One of the most common mistakes is trying to solve adaptive challenges with technical fixes. In other words “solving the wrong problem perfectly.” That such efforts occur with technical brilliance and a genuine sense of earnestness does little to compensate for the waste of time and resources they result in. Look at the valuable time wasted in congressional grillings of Facebook and Google executives or the misplaced hope placed in filtering algorithms. Fake news is adaptive because it calls for us to build our capacity to deal with information that challenges our values, makes us feel uncomfortable, or questions who we are and what we stand for. We give fake news oxygen and life because we want to believe the worst about ‘those people’. We ‘like’ it because it reaffirms our belief about the best in ourselves and those we call friends. Filtering algorithms can at best solve part of this problem. But putting a technical fix on an adaptive problem is the consummate waste of time and resources. And it often makes the problem worse, as is the case with the “filter bubble” effect.

While significant technical challenges remain with the blockchain today for its survival — particularly scalability and efficiency — peer-to-peer interactions and transactions of any kind across the planet are tantalizingly within reach. So too is the possibility of full interoperability and minimizing or even eliminating data breach. The good news is that historic patterns suggest we will find ingenious solutions to the most complex and sophisticated technical challenges of the blockchain — just as we did in Web 1.0 and Web 2.0. However, technical sophistication does not provide us with immunity from exercising leadership, proactively and head on, on the adaptive challenges a blockchain powered internet will engender.

Moving from Web 2.0 to Web 3.0 — A Leadership Challenge

It’s questionable whether the leadership mindset that got us here can make good on the possibilities of Web 3.0 while remedying the “sins of Web 2.0”. Facebook and the like give the appearance of decentralizing power without actually disturbing the economics or mindset of monopoly, extraction and surveillance. The blockchain fundamentally disrupts this mindset through democratizing data ownership and distributed consensus. Facebook and the like productize the individual node, where the beneficiary is primarily always Facebook. The blockchain ultimately relies on trust and mutualism of nodes coming together. Without leadership that embodies the values of Web 3.0, which are arguably the antithesis of Web 2.0, the foundation of the blockchain ecosystem will likely perpetuate the very problems it seeks to remedy.

To create a more just, democratized internet, we believe there’s a need for more adaptive, democratizing leadership across the blockchain ecosystem. Such leadership will strive, for example, to help end-users regain ownership of their data through permissionless (public) blockchains, while designing comprehensive solutions that wouldn’t marginalize or discriminate based on demographics or socioeconomic factors. It will recognize the need to equip blockchain-based organizations with both the technology and the leadership skills needed to engage in the resistance that the decentralization of legacy powers, systems, institutions and organizations engender. It will embrace dissent within its own ranks as it aspires to the higher values of decentralization — practicing and embodying the technology it preaches through times of organizational crisis. It will struggle openly and transparently with important questions of accountability while still operating in a non-hierarchical manner. Compared to Web 2.0 companies, entrenched as they are in a more conventional leadership mindset, blockchain-powered companies have a head start in tackling these and other adaptive challenges.

To be fair, Web 2.0 has been spectacularly transformative for the planet. It has brought us interactive content well beyond what was possible with Web 1.0. It has enabled exponential information sharing and created unprecedented opportunities for wealth creation, though primarily for tech companies themselves. Facebook decentralized the news and fostered a new generation of people calling themselves “journalists”. It amplified marginalized voices who had never been part of mainstream. However, Facebook has ceased to be a democratizing or decentralizing force in journalism. In many ways this was destined to happen because the technical foundation for Web 2.0 was built without a native money construct or identity construct.

But it’s not just a technical problem. The leadership at Facebook, Google and elsewhere deliberately, and ingeniously, created central digital power structures to commoditized information, data, privacy and our very identities. They’ve created business models that require us as end-users to share our personal information and “spray our identity” around the internet in order to access the ostensibly free services those business models depend on. They’ve made us the product…expensive data sources to be sold. They’ve also subject us to sophisticated mechanisms of addiction built into the very fabric of Web 2.0 so that we can be sold more often. While these developments certainly engendered some positive societal change, Web 2.0 has become maladaptive and unfit for purpose. Striking a more poignant note Ethereum co-founder Joe Lubin recently described Web 2.0 as having “outgrown its ability to constrain us into treating each other well.” These are just some examples of leadership failures — and, dare we say, failure to exercise humanity. To quote Charlie Chaplin from The Great Dictator:

We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost…The aeroplane and the radio have brought us closer together. The very nature of these inventions cries out for the goodness in men — cries out for universal brotherhood — for the unity of us all.

The Possibilities for Blockchain Leadership

The blockchain, as a democratizing technology deserves an equally large commitment to democratizing leadership. History has shown that questions about the relationship between technology and consequential societal change are too important to leave up to technical solutions alone or to an unexamined view of leadership. A technology like the blockchain that allows millions of people to connect, communicate and transact is a threat to mindsets of leadership that rely on centralized systems. At the deepest levels, we’re not talking about technology per se, but about a change in mindset — from a mindset currently based on an extractive economy to one based on mutualism and cooperativism. We’re talking about a leadership mindset that strives to be pioneering, that has a cadence for all things experiential, that balances and intersects with analytical convergent thinking, lateral divergent thinking, critical thinking and creative thinking. Leadership that is non-hierarchical and void of entitlement and power. Leadership with a deep sense of responsibility for equality, accountability, radical transparency and hard-hitting democracy. In other words leadership that is adaptive, seamlessly connecting and operating from the heart and mind.

We must lead adaptively, particularly during this nascent period of Web 3.0, in close partnership with our technical counterparts. Care must be taken when designing technical fixes, for example, so as not to omit certain questions about people’s readiness for accountability and democracy. In many of the markets most ripe for blockchain, democracy is declining from an already low baseline. And even in democratic societies, most of us spend most of our time at work or in schools run by an authoritarian at best and a dictator as worst. It’s no wonder then that we’re losing the ability to fulfill the promise of our democratic institutions. In fact, democracy in most daily settings is typically unexpected and deemed unacceptable! When was the last time you personally voted or had a say in holding your CEO or boss accountable? The further exploitation and exacerbation of existing inequalities in society is a consequence of falling for our own technical approaches even while promising to be the great equalizers. Blockchain leadership needs to adaptively navigate these forces while holding onto values such as trust, transparency and self-governance. Only then will we stand a chance of eliminating value-extracting bureaucracy, redistributing power to value creators, helping people reclaim their personal identities, or empowering citizens to tackle corrupt, exploitative and wasteful political and economic systems.

The blockchain can solve the technical problems, but those who seek to leading consequential change through the blockchain need to solve the human problems too. Building a decentralized future with a decentralized technology brings the possibility to transform at the human level to solve adaptive problems. The opportunity before us is to evolve the next generation of tech leadership with a different sensibility than the ones preceding it. Here are four distinct but mutually reinforcing ways to democratize leadership within blockchain-based organizations. This is not a prescriptive or linear progressive list. And we don’t need to do all four. Just one would be a good start.

  1. Allocate genuine, dedicated resources to blockchain leadership development…and invest for the long-term. This could range from a series of targeted pilots to a full-fledged department. Beware that most leadership programs tend to replicate the dinosaurs of power, privilege, authority and systems of oppression, rather than systems of freedom and leadership that can sustainably disrupt the status quo. Similar to the blockchain, leadership development — and adaptive leadership in particular — is not the sole provenance of the people at the “top”. Everyone from developers to personal assistants can lead — must lead — every day. Leadership development is iterative and cyclical. It’s a journey, not a program, that’s lifelong or as long as the company exists. Checks and counter checks, coupled with mentorship, and consistent follow-ups are necessary. Leadership development delivered only in response to problems, or after the fact of hiring poorly, waters down the potential for any lasting impact.
  2. Attend to the whole…while practicing radical humanism. Growing the blockchain ecosystem without exacerbating the very problems we’re trying to solve is key. The primary work of leadership is to empower people to move forward boldly while at the same time remaining open to the strong possibility that their solution contains within it the very problem they’re trying to solve. Adaptive change involves deep shifts in human identity, personal narratives and biases that comprise the “system”. The system is just us after all; the algorithms are just us. This can be difficult to get ahead of due to the rapid organizational growth, but it’ll be that much harder at 10–100x. There are scaling and efficiency challenges, yes, but focusing and building on the cadence of an individual or smaller group level is how you build a movement. It’s what fosters symbiosis where mutualism is void.
  3. Allow space for deeply conflicting priorities and “truths”… and build trust. As a record and a source of truth that cannot be changed or modified, the blockchain is a powerful way to show consensus on the truth on technical problems. When it comes to adaptive challenges, like eliminating corruption, everyone’s truth is valid and partial at best. Have you ever asked a corrupt ministry official if they actually believe that they are corrupt? The answer might surprise you. When it comes to matters of trust, which are core to human interaction, blockchain assumes trust and is therefore, in a way, trustless. The work of blockchain leadership is, paradoxically, to help people engage in a process to restore repair and uphold trust. This is a larger and potentially richer space than the one delimited by technical thinking.
  4. Strive in our work experience what we strive for in our product design. Building on a strong design/UX and product development foundation, how might we think about design on a human and planetary level? How might we move away from a conversation about quarterly profits or shareholders needs to human needs, and build ecosystems and platforms that are regenerative and replicable, agile and adaptive? These are important and selfless questions that enable us to get an early start on the bigger opportunity — if only we let go of our egos, and our obsessions with profits and short-term gains.

The Humility to See the World as it is…and the Audacity to Imagine it as it Could Be

What we’re proposing to do with the blockchain is incredibly audacious. Audacious always seems chaotic. Let’s make sure the good micro-level work that’s happening doesn’t overshadow the bigger adaptive challenges. The blockchain has the potential to disseminate legacy central power (often misperceived as leadership) by changing the relationship between the powerful and the powerless. It’s about shifting from competitive to cooperative, short to long-term, extractive to restorative. As Larry Brilliant, President of the Skoll Global Threats Fund, says:

“Civilizations should be judged not by how they treat people closest to power, but rather how they treat those furthest from power — whether in race, religion, gender, wealth, or class — as well as in time.”

At the same time let’s be clear, this is not a revolution, but a much anticipated innate and inevitable evolution. It’s an adaptation with potential to foster a more realistic reliance on central authority and to reinvigorate our democratic infrastructure. Again, this work is too important to leave up to an unexamined view of leadership. Exploitation and massive self-exploitation like what we’ve seen with Facebook, Google and others are as likely an outcome of our efforts as anything. Even as the technology matures, blockchain is still a gamble that equality of voice can balance out an inequality of resources. That the power of decentralized trust (expressed through algorithms) can level the power of the status quo (expressed through our narrow self interests as users, developers, investors, etc). That we can both satisfy and transcend these interests for the greater good and acquire the skills needed to self-govern. That we can dare to succeed where other behemoths have succumbed. For all the real benefits that companies like Facebook and Google have brought to us, they’re still beholden to an economics of monopoly, extraction and surveillance. How will we be different?

These are the deeper thoughts and questions on the minds of those who seek to lead consequential change through the blockchain. To quote Anand Giridharadas in Winners Take All: “To talk like this is to flirt with actual, and not rhetorical, changing of the world.”

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Eric R. Martin, Founder, Adaptive Change Advisors, is ‘democratizing leadership’ worldwide so they can make a difference in their everyday lives via #adaptiveleadership.

Asim Janjua is one of many leaders at Consensys driving organizational-design, operations, growth, and expansion with an unorthodox and human-first approach.

Eric R. Martin
Asim Janjua