The Wabi-Sabi of Business: Natalia Davis and Russell Redenbaugh

Natalia C. Davis
Partner, Kairos Inc.

Natalia has been consulting internationally since 1997. She is considered a business anthropologist who studies organizations and markets as networks of human interaction. Her clients include ABB, Heidelberg Press, AT&T, Applied Materials and KLA-Tencor. Under her leadership, Kairos Inc. consults one client each year. The remainder of her time is spent on investment research. She has frequently lectured at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and at the New York Society of Security Analysts.

Russell G. Redenbaugh, CFA
Partner, Kairos, Inc.

Russell was a partner in Cooke & Bieler, Inc., a Philadelphia based investment management firm from 1969 to 1999. While there he helped grow the business from $125M to over $6 billion in stock and bond assets. Along the way he served as a security analyst, portfolio manager, Chief Investment Officer and economic strategist. Mr. Redenbaugh also served as a Commissioner of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights for 15 years before resigning in 2005. In 2003, 2004 and 2005 he won the gold medal in the World Jujitsu Competition held in Brazil.

Natalia Davis and Russell Redenbaugh direct Kairos. They invest, and advise people on how to increase the value of their companies. They have a unique interest in designers–designers as key attributes in the valuation of companies.

I had an appointment, and did not have an opportunity to attend their presentation directly, but I tuned in when, in a later panel discussion, Patrick Whitney told them their presentation “blew me away.” Check out the transcription of their talk and their slides, and you’ll see why.

In the panel discussion I did see, I was impressed with Natalie’s challenge to the methodology presented by Cynthia Benjamin earlier in the day. Natalie seemed to confound Cynthia when she demanded an understanding of how one could “sell” an innovation–a commitment of stakeholder resources– before engaging in the innovation development process and without being able to also assert a reliable return on the innovation investment.

Natalia’s perspective, very much on the “reliability” side of the scale, demanded discipline–the responsibility that any initiative for innovation or new program presented to a CEO have a demonstrably predictable effect on the valuation of the company. The exchange ultimately was unresolved–a perfect illustration, I thought, of Roger Martin’s cultural observations.

Nonetheless, I think that Natalia’s discipline is worthy of our consideration. We have not traditionally been held to account for the return on a design investment, but we regularly assert that our designs will benefit our clients’ operations. Now, however, we are increasingly being asked to “prove” this assertion.

It is also interesting to me to consider how much more differentiated we might be if we were able to demonstrate measurable past success, and tell stories and provide illustrations that could give greater confidence in the probability of future value associated with our designs.

Some other observations:

  • The importance of closing the gap between interpretation (innovation) and effective action
  • Moving the dialogue about value from tangible/intangible to measurable/non-measurable
  • Time, a non-renewable resource, is the only real value
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