Eavesdropping in houston

Overheard: Local fighters land knockout statements at Houston's first Digital Fight Club

Ten Houston innovators took the stage for five fights on the role technology plays in the future of industry. Emily Jaschke/InnovationMap

On Wednesday, Houston's innovation ecosystem hosted the rowdiest crowd at a professional business event that the city has ever seen.

Digital Fight Club, a Dallas-based event company, had its first Houston event at White Oak Music Hall on November 20 thanks to presenting sponsors Accenture and InnovationMap. The event featured 10 fighters and five referees across five fights that discussed cybersecurity, the future of primary care, and more.

"This is Digital Fight Club," says Michael Pratt, CEO of the company. "You get subject matter experts, and serious founders and CEOs on the stage and make them make their case. You learn something, it's a lot of fun, and it's a lot better than a panel."

If you missed the showdown, here are some of the nights zingers made by the entrepreneurs and subject matter experts that were the fighters of the evening.

"I believe that computers can get a lot of information to create [something new]. That's my job, that's what I do, and I see it done."

Pablo Marin, senior AI leader at Microsoft, during the fight on robotics and AI in the workforce. Marin's argument was that artificial intelligence and robotics can and will replace all repetitive jobs. However, he also believes that computers have the ability to create, as well, based on their ability to see the whole world and have access to all the world's information.

"AI is mostly bullshit."

Matthew Hager, CEO of Poetic Systems. Hager, who won the first fight of the night, responded to Marin that, while businesses like to believe that AI is actually able to deliver results so that they can sell more, the technology hasn't actually arrived yet. Plus, Hager says AI will never be creative without the human element. "Creativity is about who created it. It's about the photographer, not the camera," he says.

"What if the seatbelt laws and the speed limits were defined by Dodge, Ford, or Chrysler?"

Ted Gutierrez, CEO and co-founder of Security Gate, who argued for government to take the reigns of cybersecurity. He adds that companies are never going to be able to agree to one set of rules. "We gotta get one group to set the standard, and it's up to everyone else to refine that and innovate for it," he says.

"Compliance doesn't mean you're secure."

Tara Khanna, managing director and security lead at Accenture, who won the fight on cybersecurity needing to be figured out by the business industry. She argues that the private sector wins the war on talent and recruiting, so it has the money and resources to dedicate to the issue in more ways than the government ever will.

"I was born, I'm going to die, and there is nothing like earth in the universe as we know it. It is worth preserving and protecting."

Steven Taylor, co-founder of AR for Everyone, in the fight over the oil and gas industry's responsibility to the environment. He argued that it's going to be a mix of policy and corporate initiatives that changes the industry.

"I think the free market is going to get there if the consumer has the choice to pick what they want to do."

Michael Szafron, commercial adviser for Cemvita Factory, who took home the win for the oil and gas and the environment fight. Szafron's argument was that corporations are going to do what their consumers want, so that's who would drive them to action. "Let's look at California —very regulated environmentalists, and a million of those people get moved to Texas," he says.

"Disconnecting our personal lives from technology would not only limit ourselves, but it would also limit our capacity to adopt those tools to the needs of our society." 

Javier Fadul, chief innovation officer at HTX Labs, during the fight on digital in our personal lives. Fadul argues that not only does technology allow us to connect worldwide, but disconnecting would prevent that technology from developing further.

"I love tech, but now that it's on all the time everywhere, we need to make time to unplug."

GraceRodriguez, CEO of Impact Hub Houston, who won the fight on personal technology. She says that yes, technology can help international connectivity, but it does more harm than good as people use personal tech as a default or distraction from humans right in front of them. "When your with people, be present," she says.

"Part of our innovation to redesign primary care is really to deploy technology out there to seamlessly provide care."

Nick Desai, chief medical information officer at Houston Methodist, who argued that the future of primary care is new innovations within traditional medicine. He adds that virtual care, which is something Methodist is working on, can help improve accessibility.

"The future of primary care is here. It's called direct primary care." 

Geetinder Goyal, CEO of First Primary Care, who won the fight on the future of primary care with his argument for a new, free market approach to medicine. Direct primary care opens up treatment and access to physicians with a monthly fee for patients to work outside of health care plans.

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Building Houston

 
 

Having diversity of thought among the leadership team is usually regarded as a positive, Houston researchers found that conflict can cause more harm than good. Photo via Getty Images

For the past 40 years, management researchers have assumed that diversity of opinion about company strategy, even when it causes conflict among senior managers, leads to higher-quality strategic decisions and improved firm performance.

It turns out there isn’t evidence to support that belief.

Rice Business Professor Daan Van Knippenberg has spent his career studying topics related to team performance, decision making, diversity and conflict. When a research team led by Codou Samba, an assistant professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, approached him with an offer to test longstanding assumptions about conflict related to company strategy in senior management teams, he jumped at the opportunity.

In his experience, the business case for diversity is strong, but it comes with caveats. “Diversity of perspectives can lead to better solutions to complex problems, but only when team members are open-minded enough to listen carefully to each other and really integrate another point of view into their decision-making process,” he says. This does not seem to apply to differences in opinion about what company strategy should be.

When managers dig in their heels and refuse to consider and integrate other perspectives, that two-way door of communication slams shut and conflict ensues. “The popular idea that conflict is actually good for firms went against all my knowledge,” says Van Knippenberg. “It’s annoying that this idea has floated around in my field for so long when the evidence really points the other way.”

The team led by Samba, which also included C. Chet Miller, a professor at the University of Houston, conducted a quantitative summary and integration of 78 papers that provide data about strategic dissent — a term used to describe diverging opinions about strategic goals and objectives on senior management teams — and its influence on strategic decision making and firm performance.

Every paper that made a prediction about strategic dissent (only a few did not) posited that strategic dissent leads to better outcomes for firms.

In their paper, “The impact of strategic dissent on organizational outcomes: A meta-analytic integration,” the research team used a deep well of empirical data to demonstrate that the opposite is true. Turning common wisdom on its head, they found that strategic dissent among senior managers actually leads to lower-quality decisions and impaired firm performance.

The authors identify two major reasons for the negative impact of strategic dissent on firm outcomes.

First, strategic dissent causes relational breakdown among senior managers. “If managers walk away from a team meeting thinking they just had a conflict instead of a productive discussion, the outcome is rarely positive,” says Van Knippenberg. The two sides retreat into their respective corners, believing the other side to be wrong and closing their minds to further information.

Second, strategic dissent leads to less relevant information being exchanged among managers. Inevitably, this blockage impairs the decision-making process. If a marketing director and an operations director are at odds, for example, they are less likely to share the marketing- or operations-specific information that is needed to make an optimal team decision.

Teams can benefit from diversity of thought, but it is not always clear what conditions need to be in place for that to happen on senior management teams that disagree about the firm’s strategic direction. CEOs — the leaders of senior management teams — would do well to realize that it takes an effortful investment to foster open-minded discussions of diverging views on the organization’s strategy, to create an environment that encourages members to express dissenting perspectives while absorbing the perspectives of others, and to prevent vested interest and power dynamics from determining the outcomes of such discussions.

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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and was based on research from Daan Van Knippenberg, the Houston Endowed Professor of Management at the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University, C. Chet Miller, the C.T. Bauer Professor of Organizational Studies at C. T. Bauer College of Business at the University of Houston, and Codou Samba, an assistant professor at Haslam College of Business at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

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