web analytics
Dent explores the magic and science of visionary leadership and groundbreaking success... Learn more about dent



VR Panel and VRCon at San Diego Comic-Con

by Steve on June 17, 2016

The Dent team is returning to San Diego Comic-Con to host three panels in the main expo hall. In addition to our A.I. and Mars panels, we are expanding on our “Building the Holodeck” VR/AR panel from last year, with an update titled “State of the Holodeck”.

You can check out the full panel description, including all speakers VR Panel.

After the panel, you can see many of our panelists and their technologies in action at VR CON @ COMIC-CON. VR CON @ COMIC-CON will showcase the latest creations and innovations from leading equipment makers, film studios, television networks, game builders, and more.


img545.jpg.w560h202Adaptive leadership is a framework for practicing leadership developed by Harvard Professor Ronald Heifetz through his teaching in the early 1990s. Critical to the theory is the distinction between authority and leadership: that being in a position of authority (CEO, President, Manager) does not by definition make someone a leader.

And, in fact, leadership is a practice that can be exercised by anyone, whether they have any formal authority or not. Leadership, then, becomes defined as “the practice of mobilizing people to tackle tough challenges and thrive.”1

The term “adaptive” is borrowed from nature, and is meant to refer to the way nature uses conflict to cause evolution through natural selection. As conditions change, organisms are forced to adapt or perish. This makes a decent analogy to us humans facing changes in our environment, whether that environment is social, legal, or more based in nature.

Leadership is in the process of guiding and motivating the work required to adapt to a new condition which cannot be changed or wished away.

When news stories like this one about Bowdoin pop up, where a college administration is in the midst of punishing some of its students for, essentially, having a Mexican themed party, many of us shake our heads. We know instinctively that this isn’t the right way to react. But why?

The problem with being too politically correct is that avoiding conflict is actually avoiding really important adaptive work.

If you subscribe to the concepts behind adaptive leadership (which I do), then you realize that the real work of progress (and leadership) happens in the minds of the constituency, and it happens when we are forced to confront just the right amount of conflict.

“Political Correctness” does damage in two ways: it is itself work avoidance, it pulls our attention away from the realities we should be reconciling with our values, and it reduces our overall capacity as a group, organization, or society to handle the psychological load of future work that will cause psychological stress.

In many cases, like what’s going on at Bowdoin College at the moment, the work that needs doing is the work of cultural integration. Most colleges go to a lot of effort to bring students to their campus from all over the US and the world, and put them together in a relatively closed environment.

This is a wonderful opportunity for leadership and learning: the college system can be a “holding environment,” a zone of protected conversation, for the students, supporting them as they use conflict to change their own understanding and opinions about other cultures, and preparing them to live in a country they must share with others. But that conflict is critical to the process. If there is only one cultural narrative, or rather, if only one system of values is allowed to be expressed, then there are no stressors on the system to create motion and force people to do adaptive work. The administration mistakenly believes that their job is to avoid conflict, when in fact they must enable and manage it.

If, instead of stepping in with a course of action, the college administration were to do nothing and wait2, they would force the students to continue to think about the party, the mini-sombreros, and the cultural statements being made by their actions. The students might ask themselves: is this party in line with my values? do I believe that cultural symbols should be fair game for parties and jokes? Is this just a reality that I need to live with, or is this a changeable norm that I would like to work on changing?

All this goes out the window when the authority takes action. The students, on both sides, become distracted by the more immediate questions about education, enrollment, and administration. The students who might have faced pressures from their peers, forcing them to examine their values and make a decision about whether or not they need to change, instead feel that there is nothing for them to do: the powers that be have taken this work for them.

In this way, the progress of society, and successful leadership, depend on a system that allows for managed conflict.

The practice of being politically correct is based on the idea that conflict is harmful. Conflict can be hurtful — it can cause pain, and change can cause loss — so for these reasons we understandably avoid it. But sometimes there is no way through but through, and when this is the case, we need leadership not political correctness.

1 This definition is from The Practice of Adaptive Leadership.

2 It’s always more complicated than this. Having authority gives you the power to do things like control what people pay attention to, and the administration, if it wants to exercise leadership in confronting this issue, might have to bring attention to the party if the students themselves were not already doing so. But raising a question or an issue is a different thing than acting on it, and they often have opposite psychological effects.


Creative control 250The Dent conference explores the magic and science of visionary leadership and groundbreaking success. Request an invitation here.

In his post “Here’s the future of augmented reality, according to indie science fiction film Creative Control”, Anthony Ha (@anthonyha) of Techcrunch reported yesterday that Amazon Studios and Magnolia Pictures are releasing Benjamin Dickinson’s film Creative Control in select theaters this Friday, March 11.

Creative Control won a Special Jury Prize for visual excellence at SXSW 2015, and the film’s director and cowriter, Dickinson recently had this to say about his take on his imagined world of pervasive augmented reality:

“I guess what I’m looking at is the trauma when there’s this huge change in technology that happens really quickly. The Internet’s been around for 20 years. The iPhone came out in 2007. That’s less than a decade. Already it’s completely integrated into every aspect of my life. I think there’s a period of trauma while we adjust.”

On the evening of March 20 in Sun Valley, Dent conference attendees as well as local residents will get chance to screen the film and meet Benjamin Dickinson. Please join us at the Sun valley Inn in the Limelight Room at 9:00pm.

Can’t wait? Dying to see it before Dent? You’re in luck, here are the locations where the movie will be playing.


Mónica Guzmán was featured on the Mediashift podcast this week, and host Mark Glaser interviewed her about her time as a Nieman Fellow and the shifting media lansdcape. When the topic turned to leadership, Mónica invoked Ronald Heifetz of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, and his notion of how leadership is distinct from that of authority (emphasis mine):

“Leadership and authority are not the same thing. So there actually is no such thing as a leadership position. Authority is no guarantee of leadership. The problems and the struggles that journalists are faced with are all problems and struggles that are new, and require new solutions. We don’t already know how to solve these problems. In those cases, the people in authority don’t necessarily have any more specialized knowledge about what those answers are than anybody else. So you’re faced with this dilemma. Leadership is mobilizing people to do the work to solve top problems they all share. So in my mind everyone in the newsroom owns a piece of these problems and so ideally you want everyone in the newsroom to be mobilized to work on those problems, but what I think that you end up seeing is that the reporters and the staff are looking to their authority figures expecting them to have the answers, and to offer salvation. Meanwhile the authority figures don’t actually have the answers, but feel pressured to kind of pretend that they do. And the only way to get them, is to get experimental. That requires having a very high failure rate. And the culture of most newsrooms cannot tolerate a high failure rate.”

On a related note, in the podcast, Glaser discusses how WIRED has decided to deal with Ad Blockers. WIRED has officially stated the options they are offering readers:

1. You can simply add WIRED.com to your ad blocker’s whitelist, so you view ads. When you do, we will keep the ads as “polite” as we can, and you will only see standard display advertising.

2. You can subscribe to a brand-new Ad-Free version of WIRED.com. For $1 a week, you will get complete access to our content, with no display advertising or ad tracking.

They don’t mention tine third option, and the one I predict will dominate in this era of peak content: Move on to another site and read what they offer ad-free and subscription-free. I am willing to bet the “confident” manager(s) at WIRED who understand what the reality likely is didn’t tell their team that the first two options will be what readers at-large will ignore.

The notion of “pretending” to have the answers reminded me of a passage from Twitter cofounder Biz Stone’s book “Things A Little Bird Told Me” about his experience in growing their platform during challenging times:

“With the shift in leadership and the tech issues, the team was fractured. We were a laughingstock in the tech world. Programmers were blaming each other. As always, when all else fails, turn to Star Trek. There is a Next Generation episode called “Attached.” It focuses mainly on Captain Picard and Dr. Crusher. In it they’re alone on the planet Kesprytt III. Some of its inhabitants capture them and implant them with “transceivers” that allow them to hear each other’s thoughts. At one point, while they’re walking, they lose their way. Captain Picard says, “This way.” But the doctor, reading his mind, says, “You don’t really know, do you?” The captain admits that sometimes being a leader means cultivating the appearance of confidence. That’s my leadership move. Saying “This is what we’re going to do. This is the right thing,” gives everyone the sense of a common mission. We needed to focus on something that felt bigger than our off-balance company. The 2008 presidential election was on the horizon, and both candidates had Twitter accounts. Election Night was going to be important for Twitter.”

The passage Stone refers to is below:

PICARD: What is it?
CRUSHER: I’m not sure whether we should go over this hill or that one. The topography on this map is a little vague.
PICARD: Let me see… This way.
CRUSHER: You don’t really know, do you?
CRUSHER: I mean, you’re acting like you know exactly which way to go, but you’re only guessing. Do you do this all the time?
PICARD: No, but there are times when it is necessary for a captain to give the appearance of confidence.

Jason Preston has also been immersed in the teaching of Heifetz and alerts me that this notion of leading by false confidence runs contra to what he’s seen Heifetz advocate. Glyn Vincent wrote about it here: “These contemporary concepts of leadership, developed by Heifetz, rely less on notions of a charismatic visionary and emphasize the need for leaders to correctly diagnose the situation at hand.” My argument is that when the situation can’t be diagnosed, false confidence can be a tool used (sparingly!) to maintain forward momentum and inspire a team. Consider that table salt is not a nutrient, and is in fact a poison, but in small amounts it can be used to enhance food greatly.

See the Star Trek video clip below:


Dent Dinner Vegas: Special Guest Greg Grunberg

by Steve on December 29, 2015

Grunberg1Over the years the organizers of the Dent conference have hosted many gatherings at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, and this year is no different.

Many remember our 2012 dinner at the Stirling Club, when we were honored to have Greg Grunberg as a guest. Greg is widely known for his ongoing role as Matt Parkman in the TV series “Heroes” and is now being seen by millions on the big screen making his own “dent in the universe” as X-Wing Pilot “Snap” Wexley in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

We are happy to announce that Greg will be joining us again during CES at a small, private, invite-only dinner for those who have registered for our 2016 Dent Sun Valley conference, along with select press and other VIPs in Las Vegas.

This Dent dinner comes courtesy of our long-time partner Sphero (coincidentally, whose creation BB-8 can also be seen in The Force Awakens.) As a special bonus, Sphero will be providing The much sought after BB-8’s as a gift to our guests.

If you are interested in joining us in Sun Valley (and at this dinner) you can request an invitation to the Dent 2016 conference here.

Read more about BB-8 here, it’s the droid Forbes called “The Best Star Wars Toy Ever Made”

BB 8 image


Repeating the obvious

by Jason on December 14, 2015


Truly great visionaries have mastery over their domains. They have spent the time and the effort to find the simplicity on the other side of complexity in the problem they are working to solve, and they have the ability to share that now-simplified understanding with everyone else.

Getting this right is really hard. One of the big challenges is that once you’ve spent the time mastering the topic yourself, you suffer from the curse of knowledge, and find yourself repeating the obvious ad infinitum.

It is surprisingly difficult to imagine that what is obvious to you is not necessarily obvious to everyone else. During a presentation I gave recently, I added a quick verbal tick before a story I had included in the talk: “you’ve probably all heard this one before,” — and afterwards, several folks told me the story was entirely new to them.

It can be annoying, when you know something well, to have someone present an “obvious” aspect of it to you as though it were new and exciting. So it’s easy to say “I’m not going to do that. I’m not going to be that speaker.” And then you forget to include the obvious, or you include it with no enthusiasm, and it deadens your vision.

Many public advocates, CEOs, politicians, and others who cause change work to effect it through years or decades of effort. In this kind of work, the advocate must always speak to the level of culture in general. That’s a lot of repeating the obvious. It’s harder than it seems — but it is also an opportunity to refine your craft.

John Maeda, designer and technologist, has written a book called The Laws of Simplicity, and in it he shares his experience of this realization:

A few years ago, I visited the master of Swiss typographic design, Wolfgang Weingart, in Maine to give a lecture for his then regular summer course. I marveled at Weingart’s ability to give the exact same introductory lecture each year. I thought to myself, “Doesn’t he get bored?” Saying the same thing over and over had no value in my mind, and I honestly began to think less of the Master. Yet it was upon maybe the third visit that I realized how although Weingart was saying the exact same thing, he was saying it simpler each time he said it.

Through focusing on the basics of basics, he was able to reduce everything that he knew to the concentrated essence of what he wished to convey. His unique example rekindled my excitement for teaching.

All of the great masters of communication do this. Steve Jobs makes a good example because there’s so much video of him available on YouTube. Here’s an example of Steve explaining computers through an analogy, in 1980:

Then a decade later, he tells the same story in this interview (it answers the first question — starts about a minute in). Note that he gets halfway through it, and then asks to do it again a little better:


Denter Pete Avondoglio is Professor Emeritus at Umea Institue of Design in Sweden, and has been instrumental in developing their Advanced Product Design (APD) program. In 2008, Pete described how he saw their program as possessing a unique identity — one of identifying problems and solving them:

We see a growing demand for innovation and conceptual thinking, as well as the emotional aspects and the concept of experience design. Industry today usually has marketing people, technical experts and production know-how – and a major need for most is innovative product development – the identification of problems and the development of products and concepts to solve them – a good area for industrial designers.

That emphasis has helped the school reap a new award. In November, at Umeågalan — the Swedish entrepreneurial event of the year, the Umeå Institute of Design was the winner in the “Best Brand” category.

Kudos to Pete and his team for the well-deserved recognition.


mindset-coverThis past April, Denter Mark Pearson’s audiobook startup Libro.fm launched their book club with a nonfiction title called Mindset, by Carol Dweck. I purchased a copy and listened to it on my commute to and from work, and it’s one of those books with a straightforward central insight that, if you don’t already run it natively, can massively change your approach to success.

Dweck separates people loosely into two mindsets, which she terms the “fixed” mindset, or the “growth” mindset:

  • The fixed mindset describes a belief that “your qualities are carved in stone,” that things like your IQ score are measured and, crucially, not possible to improve.
  • The growth mindset applies to people who believe that growth is possible in all aspects. That failures are not a referendum on your innate abilities, but a necessary step in learning.

Fortunately, modern research stands thoroughly behind the growth mindset:

Scientists are learning that people have more capacity for lifelong learning and brain development than they ever thought. Of course, each person has a unique genetic endowment. People may start with different temperaments and different aptitudes, But it is clear that experience, training, and personal effort take them the rest of the way.

Robert Sternberg, the present day guru of intelligence, writes that the major factor in whether people achieve expertise, is not some fixed prior ability, but purposeful engagements. Or as his forerunner [Alfred] Binet recognized: it’s not always the people who start out the smartest who end up the smartest.

For 20 years my research has shown that the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life. It can determine whether you become the person you want to be, and whether you accomplish the things you value.

One of the core beliefs behind what we do at Dent is that greatness is not prescribed at birth by a lottery — Marie Curie, Ronald Reagan, Gandhi, J.K. Rowling — there is nothing they’ve done which is not accessible to most other people with a sufficient amount of well-directed effort.

Charisma isn’t some magical aura, it’s a set of behaviors, social cues, and habits that some people learn earlier than others. Being seen as a visionary isn’t so much about being right as it is about successfully hiding your effort.

Dweck’s growth mindset is the perfect mental attitude for tackling this kind of learning.


Building smart teams

by Jason on December 9, 2015


Success and failure are often separated by teams that work well together and teams that don’t, yet building a team has often been considered a soft science. An activity that great leaders could be intuitively better at, but that people screw up on more often than not.

But professors Anita Woolley, Thomas Malone, and Christopher Chabris have conducted (and published) some research that shows there are some reliable links between how you construct a team and how it performs:

The smartest teams were distinguished by three characteristics.

First, their members contributed more equally to the team’s discussions, rather than letting one or two people dominate the group.

Second, their members scored higher on a test called Reading the Mind in the Eyes, which measures how well people can read complex emotional states from images of faces with only the eyes visible.

Finally, teams with more women outperformed teams with more men. Indeed, it appeared that it was not “diversity” (having equal numbers of men and women) that mattered for a team’s intelligence, but simply having more women. This last effect, however, was partly explained by the fact that women, on average, were better at “mindreading” than men.

They followed this study up with some additional research that shows this dynamic applies to teams that work remotely as well as teams that work in person.

I remember learning about Theory of Mind in introductory psychology class in college:

Theory of mind (often abbreviated ToM) is the ability to attribute mental states — beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc. — to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, intentions, and perspectives that are different from one’s own.

Which of course is not quite right — we are looking for people who have empathy, which is something you develop to a greater or lesser degree based on your theory of mind and your life experience.

Another interesting twist is that team smartness was not correlated with how intelligent the team members were:

We gave each volunteer an individual I.Q. test, but teams with higher average I.Q.s didn’t score much higher on our collective intelligence tasks than did teams with lower average I.Q.s. Nor did teams with more extroverted people, or teams whose members reported feeling more motivated to contribute to their group’s success.

In other words, if you want to build a team that can dent the universe, pick people who have a lot of empathy, and if you lack a better barometer for it, pick women.


Living by first principles

by Jason on December 8, 2015

In the video above, Kevin Rose elicits a great example of how reasoning from first principles led Tesla to manufacture their own batteries, and therefore capture the profit margin of other battery makers as their own savings.

Musk points out that reasoning from first principles is a physics kind of idea. And in fact, the famous physicist Richard Feynman can show us first principles as applied to ordinary life. He penned an autobiographical book called “Surely You’re Jokeing, Mr. Feynman,” and no further in than page 19, we get a wonderful example of living by first principles.

As a boy, Feynman found work repairing radios:

As the repair jobs got more and more complicated, I got better and better, and more elaborate. I bought myself a milliammeter in New York and converted it into a voltmeter that had different scales on it by using the right lengths (which I calculated) of very fine copper wire. It wasn’t very accurate, but it was good enough to tell whether things were in the right ballpark at different connections in those radio sets.

In order to do this kind of thing — in order to modify a milliammeter, designed to measure electric current in milliamperes, into a device that measures volts — you need to have a functional understanding of the first principles behind the device. If you understand electricity well enough, then you understand what the device is doing to measure it, and then you can change it.

Feynman elaborates:

Radio circuits were much easier to understand in those days because everything was out in the open. After you took it apart (it was a big problem to find the right screws), you could see this was a resistor, that’s a condenser, here’s a this, there’s a that; they were all labeled.And if wax had been dripping from the condenser, it was too hot and you could tell that the condenser was burned out…So it wasn’t hard for me to fix a radio by understanding what was going on inside, noticing that something wasn’t working right, and fixing it.

This goes for all kinds of modern things, too. If you understand the way computers work on the component level (so hard drives, processors, graphics cards, etc), it’s not such a big deal to open one up and move things around, or replace others. This is repair work.

First principles is a tricky concept today though, because things are so complex. Is knowing how to move components around inside a computer really first principles? Or is that a false understanding, because you need to also know how those components are put together?

For practical purposes therefore, I think that you can call it first principles if you fully understand things at least a layer down from what you’re trying to work on. If it’s a computer, components are good enough. If it’s a battery, material costs are good enough. If it’s a program, the programming language is good enough.

Living by first principles can help with the boring stuff as well as the important stuff. I have a Harmony remote for my TV and all the related gadgets, which mostly works, but sometimes doesn’t. If you take the effort to understand what the remote is doing (mimicking the signals from each individual remote in sequence) then it’s often not hard to know what went wrong and how to fix it. If, however, you don’t know what it’s doing, then it’s easy to get frustrated by it.

The point is that first principles applies well beyond the areas of science and invention. It often takes a little extra effort, but if you build a habit around it, you will be approaching what you do in life with a distinct advantage, from the television to the future of transportation.