Hi there. I'm a Partner at Undercurrent, where I lead a team focused on helping ambitious organizations operate in ways that are beneficial to all their users.

The Podular Company

Here’s a few excerpts from a longish post with predictably great illustrations from Dave Gray.

The challenge in aligning incentives is threefold: First, incentives must be real and tangible enough that people can see the impact they have on the business as a whole; second, they should balance long-term and short-term thinking; and third, they should balance rewards so they reward people for things that make the business as a whole healthier and more successful.

Good cheat-sheet for incentives, this. A bit broad, but it’s the intro to the post, so…yeah. There’s also this bit:

Stock-option and profit-sharing plans reward employees when the company does well, but the larger the company, the more difficult it becomes for people to feel that their efforts have an impact on the stock price.

Which leads to this:

In a podular organization, you divide labor into “businesses within the business,” each of which can function as a complete service in its own right. Since each pod functions as a small business, its focus remains outside the pod, on its customers.

Stay focused, friends. And I’ll get to this another day, but stay small(ish), too.

Read more: The Podular Company

Peer-to-Peer Insurance?

Peer to peer lending is about managing several one time low implication relationships (loan agreements), peer to peer insurance is about managing one high implication relationship with many people. Failure in peer to peer lending is on an individual basis, failure on peer to peer insurance is on global basis.

I think we’ll see more of this in the future (if it has been tried at all, at least in insurance) – where big-enough cohorts of people get together to underwrite each other in a variety of ways. I imagine if the scale is tuned *just right*, you’d be able to avoid a significant amount of regulation, and thus a significant amount of cost (and resulting interface shittiness).

Read more: Disrupting Insurance: The Other Financial Services Opportunity

More Regulatory Capture

As the debate reminds us, large companies enjoy power as lobbyists. When they are monopolists, the incentive to lobby increases because the gains from because the gains from convenient new rules and laws accrue solely to them. Monopolies are no friend of a healthy democracy.

They are, alas, often the friend of government bureaucracies. This is not just a case of corruption but also about what is convenient and comprehensible to a politician or civil servant. If they want something done about climate change, they have a chat with the oil companies. Obesity is a problem to be discussed with the likes of McDonald’s. If anything on the internet makes a politician feel sad, from alleged copyright infringement to “the right to be forgotten”, there is now a one-stop shop to sort it all out: Google.

I hadn’t really thought of this point – that monopolies are easier for a government to deal with. Or at least, they were until the internet came around. Now, with an increased focus on interoperability, APIs, working with smaller vendors, etc., at least the tech-savvy parts of government are starting to realize that a panoply of partners is in fact the easier thing to manage. Again, because Internet.

No policy can guarantee innovation, financial stability, sharper focus on social problems, healthier democracies, higher quality and lower prices. But assertive competition policy would improve our odds, whether through helping consumers to make empowered choices, splitting up large corporations or blocking megamergers. Such structural approaches are more effective than looking over the shoulders of giant corporations and nagging them; they should be a trusted tool of government rather than a last resort.

So much this. Our regulated things – banks, car dealerships, whatever – are crappy because the regulations are crappy on purpose.


Read more: Monopoly is a bureaucrat’s friend but a democrat’s foe

What’s Your Purpose?


For more, go here.

John Willshire: Progress Checklist Idea

John Willshire over at Smithery has a nice set of questions that could serve as a fantastic checklist or facilitation guide for mentors – imagine setting down with a colleague or a group of colleagues and running through this list (ideally without much discussion until everyone’s shared, what we’re calling a “Context Round” at Undercurrent these days):

ACTIONS: What have you done in the last day to help get something done

COMMERCE: What have you done this week to help hit our targets more quickly?

CUSTOMER: What have you done this month to benefit customers?

LEADERSHIP: What have you done this quarter to help others work in a new way?

ORGANISATION: What have you done this year to improve our organisation’s culture?

Read more: 3.16 – Basic Units

The Recession Generation’s Impact on Finance

I’m really interested in finance, lately, if you hadn’t noticed.

I’m particularly interested in the way new consumer behaviors, and decades of implicit training, are pushing people who could be well-served by banks either away from using banks or to start their own competitive products.

A question I posed on Twitter: in a year, why keep money in a bank – why not just keep it in an Amazon account?

To wit, here’s a few choice quotes from a Forbes article about “The Recession Generation.”

Betterment, with $45 million raised so far, has a more authentic pedigree for its audience: It was launched in 2008 by two twentysomething New York buddies with their own savings. CEO and cofounder Jon Stein is a Harvard economics graduate with a Columbia M.B.A., who says he became disillusioned by his four years as a New York banking consultant. “We never, in meetings, talked about: ‘Who is the end customer.’ We talked about: ‘How do we optimize this product for profitability? What fees can we add on?’ ” says the 35-year-old.

This, ultimately, is something that we’re hoping to change with our clients. I’m happy to report that it’s having some traction, particularly at higher levels.

One thing that shapes almost all of these [unbundlers]: They’re practical. They emphasize stewardship, long-term appreciation and using technology to cut costs.

Two things here. First: these new companies are focused on building products for an era where revenue expectations will be inherently smaller, business-by-business, product-by-product.

Second: for consumers, if interest rates take a while to come back, the smart money is to use something like Digit to quickly move money from spending accounts to investment accounts that get smarter over time.

The stakes are huge. For all the public focus on twentysomethings moving back with their parents or Lena Dunham and her underemployed friends carping about their lot on HBO’s Girls, Millennials, roughly defined as young adults born after 1980, control maybe $2 trillion in liquid assets, Wealthfront says. By the end of the decade that number is expected to surge to $7 trillion. And that will get vastly bigger as Millennials enter their prime earning years and then a massive wealth transfer from their Boomer parents begins.

The most important thing for a large financial institution, as far as I can tell, is getting prepped to receive an influx of funds from the next generation of workers just as interest rates return to form.

Fidelity, for its part, seems further behind: For now it’s focusing on content, through a new website, www.moneyfirsts.com, that includes tools and education articles (partly from LearnVest) and a link to a Fidelity Facebook planning app. The company also brags about the kind of basics–depositing checks via smartphone and eliminating ATM fees–that hardly seem revolutionary.

This is a major bummer.

Anyway, worth a read!

Read more: The Recession Generation’s Impact on Finance

The Iterating Organization

This is a great story from The Next Big Sound – an analytics platform for the music industry – on their transition from legacy to modern ways of working.

First, we agreed to do away with strictly product-focused teams, and instead introduced project-focused teams. We defined a “project” as 2-4 weeks of focused work, and agreed that there would only be one project at a time per team. We also encouraged everyone to keep the teams small, in order to minimize communication overhead and maximize speed, and independent, in order to minimize external dependencies.

To me, the stabilization of rhythm is the most important thing to get right – predictability makes every other change easier.

Instead of top-down management, teams would self-organize and self-manage, with everyone was encouraged to take on the team lead role. (In fact, as of today, everyone at the company has served as a team lead on at least one project). We offered some loose guidelines, but each team had the choice to follow, not follow, or amend them.

Love this. One of my mistakes early on in Undercurrent’s transition to new ways of working was to try to force it on people. When they didn’t want it, found the change odd, or just preferred a slightly different version of what I was preaching, I was put out. Lots of wasted energy and emotion for everyone involved. Do not force teams to work in a certain way. Invite them to it.

At the time, we thought that the most significant difference from prior iterations is that teams will now self-organize to complete specific projects. That is, people can join or ask others to join a team at any time, not just at the beginning of a project.

In retrospect, the more important change that we agreed to try was a new method of working that we later started calling “self-selection”. A year later, it is still a cornerstone of the way that we work at Next Big Sound: you get to pick what you work on, whom you work with, and where you work.

This is the principle of “Pull work” brought to life. Teams pull ways of working and things to work on, rather than have those things pushed upon them by management. We still haven’t gotten this right at Undercurrent, but I like to think we’re making steps.

Lots of learning within.

Read more: The Iterating Organization

Working Principles

Working Principles

The following principles provide guidance for all work; by applying them, especially when combined with processing and deciding methods, teams and organizations are able to become self-organizing quickly and without significant retraining. While they’re somewhat difficult to adopt (some elements run counter to “normal” corporate behavior), they’re designed to be simple and to inspire complex behavior inside teams and within organizations. Crucially, they’re written for humans. In building this list, we’re inspired by what’s stuck most at Undercurrent and by what’s been most powerful for client teams transitioning to a new way of working.

  1. Standard cycles: Define short rhythms for work (week-long sprints, say), for meeting about work, and for longer periods of emphasis. Hold these rhythms as sacred.
  2. Dynamic steering: Make small, frequently revised, iterative moves. Instead of killing ideas before they have a chance to prove themselves, just make them small enough so that they’re safe-to-try.
  3. Pull work: Inside of a clearly defined purpose and scope, teams choose their own work, way of working, and structure needed to get the job done.
  4. Double-linking: Teams have a leader and a representative. The leader has the responsibility to allocate resources and is ultimately accountable for results. The representative has the duty to surface issues at the next level above the team.
  5. Work in public: Deliver work into open spaces. Use group chat and blogposts to keep team members in the loop. Avoid closed, single-tenant platforms like email.
  6. Facilitation: All meetings are run by facilitators who have been selected by the group – and that facilitator mustn’t be the “boss”.
  7. Adaptive agendas: Agendas are built on-the-fly, prepared by the members of the team that are present, and are based on current issues.
  8. Simplification: Use the deciding method to kill unnecessary structure and simplify what’s needed. Keep only that which is necessary to reduce cognitive load.
  9. Record-keeping: Only the essentials are recorded, but they’re recorded thoroughly by a secretary selected by the group. Records are public by default and changes are made clear.
  10. Check in and out: Meetings are bookended by checkins and checkouts to create focus. Facilitated methods and meetings are respected by calling for “time” whenever it’s needed.

Guidelines & Tips

  • Pushing ideas toward “safety” (principle 2) feels counter to what conditioning, particularly for marketing organizations that want to make big plays. It’s uncomfortable, but stick with it
  • Teams that hold true to the principles are able to eliminate two behaviors that slow down progress: consensus-building and management, as iteration and leadership take hold. This takes months of experience for new players to grok. Patience!
  • Multi-tenant, connected software is an absolute requirement here. Doing work around the work – like updating a system that tells your colleagues that you did a task – isn’t something that any worker should live with. Our systems are smarter than that. Demand Google Docs or similar.

At Undercurrent over the past several months, I’ve been working with a few folks on the team toward an open-source, decompiled version of our operating system(s) that can be individually adopted, and improved in parallel (hopefully) by a large group of users. These are my notes. Comments open!
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Stellar, Yett

Stellar won’t be a transformative protocol when speculators start hedge funds to bet billions on its rising value, or when 1 Stellar becomes as valuable as 1 BTC. Stellar will be transformative when a migrant worker in California sends money home to his family without losing money to check cashing fees, bank fees, wire fees, and currency conversion fees. It will be transformative when a citizen in an authoritarian country can transact freely and safely with their peers around the world.

Other early adopters will build what look like toys, as the ability of anyone to create a gateway and trade in arbitrary currencies leads to a flowering of new ideas on what it means to be a bank or create a currency.

Yett is exciting. Short story: Stellar is a protocol that allows transactions between two currencies. Yett will be a platform that makes it easy for anyone to use Stellar. Here’s a fun list of things people hope to build with Stellar.

Read more: Stellar, Yett

Umpqua Bank – Responsive Example

The bank prides itself on doing everything differently. Instead of sending out junk mail offering consumer loans, Umpqua employees attached small flyers to potted plants and placed them on 1,700 doorsteps in the neighbourhood they were targeting. Every day begins with a “motivational moment” (read something inspiring, play marshmallow dodgeball or hold a trivia quiz; do not refer to corporate memos or procedures). Phone calls are answered with the words “Umpqua, the world’s greatest bank”. Tellers, for example, hand out a chocolate with each cash withdrawal. It goes to great lengths to cut the time and form-filling involved in obtaining a mortgage—typically an agonising process.


When Umpqua passes $50 billion in assets—not a far-fetched prospect—scrutiny will increase exponentially. Banks subjected to this level of red tape describe it as all-consuming.

Unfortunately for them, though, it may be (at least in financial services) that you must be small to be good.

Read more: Umpqua Bank – Responsive Example