How to Hit a Curveball

Confront and Overcome the Unexpected in Business
By Scott R. Singer with Mark Levine

Rebounding with a Second Curveball

Friday, March 19th, 2010

It would be tough to find any organization that has been thrown more dramatic curveballs in the month of March than Cornell University. This unprecedented month of unexpected changes is also proof that curveballs have the potential for positive change, not just trauma.

It was in early March that the Cornell community was stunned by the third apparent suicide of a student in less than a month—the second and third coming in successive days. The string of tragedies landed the Ivy League university on the front page of The New York Times and a place on almost every national news broadcast. The stories reopened the urban legend stories of Cornell as a suicide school, which has stung the school for generations.

Between 2000 and 2005, there were 10 confirmed suicides, Dr. Marchell said, and from the beginning of 2006 through the beginning of this academic year, there were none.

Dr. Marchell said he was “well acquainted with the perception of Cornell as a suicide school,” having grown up in Ithaca and graduated from Cornell. But it is an urban legend, he said, largely fueled by the fact that suicides there are often shockingly public.

“When someone dies by suicide in a gorge, it’s a very visible public act,” he said.

— The New York Times, After 3 Suspected Suicides, Cornell Reaches Out

Still reeling from this series of tragic curveballs, Cornell was suddenly thrown another curveball, one which was no less shocking, albeit in a positive way. Before the ink was dry on the suicide stories Cornell found itself a lead story in the news because of the surprising success of its men’s basketball team.

Despite being three-time Ivy League champions, Cornell was expected to exit the NCAA tournament without a win, like almost every other Ivy entrant over the years. Instead, Cornell advanced to the round of 16 in a Cinderella story that captivated much of the nation. Less than two weeks after the rash of suicides another curveball had helped turn things at least partially around. Stories were now about March Madness, Ivy League style.

“We were all checking the scores on our smartphones,” said Mr. Wolleman, a jeweler and father of four who managed to make it home to Scarsdale, N.Y., in time to watch the end of the game on TV. “This whole thing is a new experience—completely unexpected and wonderful. We’re more used to hearing about Nobel Prize winners in physics, not our athletic prowess.”

The good feelings surrounding the N.C.A.A. tournament are also helping to alleviate some of the gloom experienced by many students and alumni over the six suicides by Cornell students this school year. The most recent three occurred within weeks of one another beginning last month, all in the striking gorges on campus.

“The winter there is very long and cold and dark,” Mr. Weiss said, “and this goes a long way toward lifting the spirits on campus.”

—The New York Times, Energized by Cornell, and It’s Not Over Physics

Cornell’s March roller coaster is a reminder that curveballs can be disruptive agents for positive change, not just negative.

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Stepping Outside the (Urban) Batter’s Box

Friday, March 12th, 2010

Few American cities have been thrown as many curveballs as Detroit. The city that was once the symbol of America’s economic prosperity has been suffering from a long, sometimes gradual, sometimes precipitous decline. What began as white flight from a still economically vibrant but racially troubled metropolis, turned into an across the board economic meltdown that coincided with the collapse of the American automobile industry in 2008 and 2009.

Now, a city of nearly 2 million in the 1950s has declined to less than half that number. On some blocks, only one or two occupied houses remain, surrounded by trash-strewn lots and vacant, burned-out homes. Scavengers have stripped anything of value from empty buildings. According to one recent estimate, Detroit has 33,500 empty houses and 91,000 vacant residential lots.

—Associated Press, Detroit Wants to Save Itself by Shrinking

Recently elected mayor Dave Bing, a successful businessman and former professional basketball player, and the rest of the city’s officials, were confronted with a $300 million budget deficit, a small and shrinking tax base, and increasing demands for police, fire and other municipal services. Then the recession of 2008 struck, making things even worse. Detroit seems on its way to plunging into unprecedented depths for a modern American metropolis (save New Orleans). If ever
there is a time to think outside the box, this is it.

“Things that were unthinkable are now becoming thinkable,” said James W. Hughes, dean of the School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, who is among the urban experts watching the experiment with interest. “There is now a realization that past glories are never going to be recaptured. Some people probably don’t accept that, but that is the reality.”

—Associated Press, Detroit Wants to Save Itself by Shrinking

What is Detroit’s plan? To shrink the city. Blighted areas will be entirely demolished. Residents in those areas will be relocated to healthier parts of the city. And how will the demolished areas be redeveloped? They won’t be. The idea is to let them become semi rural and revert to agricultural and other uses that require very little municipal support. The concept has been used by other cities before, but never on the scale Detroit is proposing.

No one can yet say whether this “undevelopment” of Detroit will work. But what no one can deny is that, faced with a series of unprecedented curveballs the city’s new leadership is showing a willingness to step outside the batter’s box. You have to admire the effort.

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How Will Amazon Respond to the iCurveball?

Friday, March 5th, 2010

Amazon certainly knew that Apple would release a tablet computer that would likely compete directly with its own Kindle electronic book reader. But apparently, Apple’s coming out with plans to offer a version of the product for as low as $499 was a curveball, not just to Amazon, but to most industry observers. It seems that the ability to come in at a lower than expected price is a result of Apple using its own chips rather buying them from another manufacturer.

How will Amazon respond? Will it continue to position the Kindle as a dedicated eBook reader different than the iPad’s multi-role positioning? Or will it try to make the next generation of Kindles more like the iPad?

There are many hints Amazon will choose the latter option. Some bloggers are even predicting an Amazon/Microsoft alliance.

Imagine a Windows 7 Phone Series device scaled up to a 10.1 inch screen, with Wireless-N networking, Microsoft’s Zune/Amazon MP3 music service, Kindle’s e-book store and Microsoft’s developer base behind it. A synthesis of the world’s largest Internet retailer, ebook reseller and the world’s largest software company.

—Tech Broiler,, Does Amazon’s Tablet Future Lie With Microsoft?

I don’t know if that’s the path Amazon will take. But following how various players in this business respond to the curveballs they’re thrown by each of their competitors will make for fascinating reading on whatever device you use.

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