Imagine a world without paper — and eventually the printing press. And yet that’s exactly what was happening (or more accurately “wasn’t” happening) in Europe and the Middle East prior to the Silk Road. No trade growth, no cultural growth, and no evolving civilization. Basically, no growth.
In reality, the Silk Road embodied a vast network of strategically located trading posts, new markets, and thoroughfares that facilitated the exchange of goods and services. Once paper, a Chinese invention, was introduced, it also led to the dissemination of news and information. This interconnectedness was the basis for a great advance in civilization and trade.
It comes to mind as an apt analogy for parts of the U.S. that are grappling with reinventing their economic structures due to de-industrialization. And it applies equally to the importance of your network in gaining traction for economic development or building an innovation ecosystem. For leadership and policy-makers, this translates to the new opportunities you’re able to provide your citizens and constituents. For startup founders, it can mean new pathways to access capital, talent, and customers. In short, everyone on the continuum (or road) stands to gain. It’s the opposite of zero-sum thinking.
Zero-Sum Game Thinking
Zero-sum thinking is based on principles that run the exact opposite of what every recognized leader in Innovation and business says about growing something.
The Zero-Sum Game includes:
An attitude that there is a finite supply — My gain means a loss for you.
If things are finite then I must become combative to protect [xxxx*]. [Insert: my job, customers, fame, money, power, etc.)
So that makes me want to control who gets into my system, kingdom, city, etc.
I believe I can filter out my perceived enemies and any threats to my control; my decisions are rooted in this paradigm instead of the objective of the organization or people I represent and serve.
I’ll ride on the backs of others if I think it can further my gains.
I’ll burn bridges to do so because 1) I don’t understand the incalculable gain that comes from judiciously expanding my network and 2) I don’t understand that even though I’m the titular “head of state” (as one example), I don’t operate in a vacuum. That there will be repercussions for my behavior. And those repercussions will be characterized by failure and loss of opportunity.
It’s sad to see it play out, but this old school transactional approach seems to play still in more remote geo-areas where there is little access. Think of the domains that the Silk Road unexpectedly connected that were previously stagnant, at risk for demise, and/or essentially unknown. That was a time — largely matching the Middle Ages’ timespan — where life was structured as a feudal system and serfs were beholden to a warlord who controlled the lands. A highly controlled environment.
In the present day, It is noteworthy that a lot of the towns seeking to address a new economic structure were previously factory towns where life was predicated on what the factory was doing, then so went the town. A modern feudal system of sorts. The problem is that once the factory leaves a different game is underway and leadership doesn’t have a playbook ready.
This is particularly problematic in some Midwestern and other rustbelt and non-Coastal locations and it keeps them from advancing.
A way of thinking that there is more than enough to go around and if I win, many more can win too — without sacrificing what I still want to protect whether that be intellectual property, lines of code, or other uniquely strategic and proprietary information. It’s a way of finding the balance of doing both simultaneously. Just as China managed to do for some 1600 years.
When Control is the Enemy of Growth
In order for growth to occur, one of the key objectives is to link to new powerful networks, all the while understanding you can’t have complete control over what that network may bring, but also knowing that the upside far outweighs any downside.
In fact, we know network effects are exponential. Influence one person and that could mean entree to the thousand more influencers they know. Alternatively, burn a bridge with one person, and you’ve missed the opportunity value of the other + 1000 of influencers in their network.
This is what the Han and later Mongolian dynasty understood and helped make China one of the most powerful nation-states on earth. Comparing to our modern day startup culture, they broke with the traditional moat* (*as in a “barrier”, and not the Warren Buffett context) conceptualization and realized they would become stronger through the virtue of linking up with known outposts and the ancillary routes that supported the major overall network. Not only Greece, but the Roman Empire and Kushan Empire also benefitted from these new pathways to new markets, businesses, and commerce.
If likened to a team, all the team benefits. In China, it was a well-calculated risk that expanded their world exponentially and provided the oxygen needed to move their economic initiatives forward. There were many beneficiaries, both those intended and those unintended. One could argue it was one of the first cases of disruption and its success was resounding.
In short, the growth mindset, which includes non-zero-sum thinking, is prerequisite to any Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Since those two properties are the engines of economic growth, it stands to reason that the limiting results of zero-sum mentality are at complete odds with anything other than inertia.
In the end, you can build a moat around your kingdom, try to keep people out, or filter for a demographic you prefer and hope that you have enough oxygen to sustain it, but you’re not likely to prevail.
It’s clear from observing the cities and towns who are getting this right that those who have the compatible leadership mentality and initiatives are making meaningful strides.
As Brad Feld tells us in his Boulder Thesis, this is one of the four key elements of building a sustainable ecosystem:
“For a startup community to be successful over a long period of time, it has to be inclusive of anyone who wants to engage in any way. Leaders have to be inclusive of new leaders, leaders have to be inclusive of feeders, and everyone participating in the startup community has to be inclusive of everyone else.”