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« May 2017 | Main

Worth reconsidering?

The status quo is powerful indeed. We add layers, patches and small improvisations, all to shore up something we don't want to reconsider.

If we had a clean sheet of paper, and could design something that actually worked, what would we do about:

  • Big-time college sports
  • School taxes based on location, and school spending based on income
  • Development costs, transparency and patents related to pharmaceuticals
  • The Electoral College and gerrymandering
  • Allocation of electromagnetic spectrum
  • Stagnant oligopolies
  • What's taxed and what's not
  • School curriculum
  • Online identity
  • Infrastructure priorities

The free market doesn't always do things as well as an enlightened institution can. And institutions often need our help to become more enlightened.

Sometimes, we need to take a deep breath and decide to do it again, better. 

Training customers

If you frequently run last-minute sales, don't be surprised if your customers stop buying things in advance. You're training them to wait.

If you announce things six or seven times, getting louder each time, don't be surprised if your customers ignore the first few announcements. You've trained them to expect you'll yell if it's important.

If you don't offer someone a raise until they find a new job and quit, don't be surprised if your employees start looking for new jobs.

The way you engage with your customers (students/bosses/peers) trains them on what to expect from interactions with you.

Drip, drip, drip.

Better than it needs to be

Why not?

Why not make it more generous, more fair, more insightful than it needs to be? Why not deliver the service with more flair, more care and more urgency?

Why not do it because you can, not because you have to...

You are more powerful than you think

Highlights from an annotated list of 17 rules for the new world of work:

You are more powerful than you think
It’s bigger than you
Leaders are made, not born
Leveling up is a choice
They say you can’t, we know you can
Dance with fear
See, assert, change
Overwhelmed is temporary
Out loud, in public
Hard work is far better than busy work
The crowd is wrong. The critics are wrong. Useful feedback is precious...
Management matters. So does leadership...
“Here, I made this.” Or possibly, “Here, we made this.”
See the end before you begin the journey
Culture defeats everything
It’s personal

Applications are now open for the next two sessions of the proven altMBA workshop. It's time to level up.

"Is judgment involved?"

No judgment, no responsibility.

No responsibility, no risk.

There's a fork in the road. If you seek out roles without responsibility, you might just find a sinecure. 

This is the hot job for undifferentiated job seekers at the placement office, the job where a famous company will tell you what to do all day.

Alas, those are the jobs that will be deleted first. The jobs that come with little in the way of respect or stability. These are the jobs that big companies automate whenever they can, or create enough rules to avoid any variation if they can't.

The other choice is a job loaded with judgment calls. One where it's extremely likely you'll make a decision you regret, and get blamed for it. One where you take responsibility instead of waiting for authority.

It turns out that those are the best jobs of all.

[PS if you're organizing for social good, consider applying for this free program from Civic Hall in New York. I hope to see you there.]

Staring at the numbers

Sometimes, you can learn a lot by watching. But not always.

An alien observing our behavior in elevators would note that most of the time, a person gets in, approaches the front corner, leaves that corner, goes to the back and then stands silently, staring at the numbers above the door.

Only one of those actions is actually required. If you don't push the button (or have someone push it for you) nothing happens. The rest—the moving to the back, standing silently and most of all, staring at the numbers—it's just for show, a cultural tradition.

Most practices work this way. From eating in restaurants to marketing, we add all sorts of extraneous motion to our effort. Which is fine, unless you don't understand which ones actually matter to the outcome.

Too often, we train people in the motions without giving them understanding. Then, when the world changes, we're stuck staring at the numbers going by, unable to find the insight to push a new kind of button.

Worth being afraid of

We're pretty good at finding demons to be afraid of.

  • The other.
  • The one in the shadows.
  • Change.
  • The family member we can't possibly please.
  • Competition.
  • Critics.
  • The invisible network of foes conspiring against us and what we stand for.

It turns out, though, that the one who usually lets us down is us.

Our unwillingness to leap, to commit, to trust our own abilities.

It's the internal narrative that seeks disaster just as much as it craves reassurance.

That's the one we ought to be vilifying, fortifying ourselves against and frightened of.

It gets less powerful once we are brave enough to look it in the eye.

All it takes is effort

Customer service used to be a great divide. Well-off companies would heavily invest in taking care of customers, others would do the minimum (or a bit less). Of course, back then, organizations couldn't possibly give you all the service you might dream of. They can't all afford to answer the phone on one ring, it's expensive to hire enough operators and train them. And they certainly can't dedicate an operator just to you, someone who would know your history and recognize your voice.

Today, though, when more and more of our engagements are digital, it doesn't take an endless, ongoing budget to delight people. All an organization needs to do is care enough (once) to design it properly.

To make a process that is easy to use, clearly labeled and well designed. 

To build a phone system that doesn't torture you and then delete everything you typed in.

To put care into every digital interaction, even if it's easier to waste the user's time.

[Insert story here of healthcare company, cable company or business that doesn't care enough to do it right. One where the committees made the process annoying. Or where the team didn't cycle one more time. Or where the urgency of the moment takes attention away from the long-term work of system design.  The thing is, if one company can do the tech right, then every organization with sufficient resources and motivation can do the tech right.]

The punchline is simple: In consumer relations and service, good tech is free.

It's free because it pays for itself in lower overhead and great consumer satisfaction and loyalty.

But it requires someone to care enough to do it right.

Perhaps we need to change the recording to, "due to unusually lazy or frustrated design and systems staff (and their uninvolved management), we're going to torture you every single time you interact with us. Thanks for your patience."

Winner take all

Really?

Almost nothing in our daily lives is actually a winner take all competition.

Somewhere, there's someone fitter, faster, thinner, quicker, smarter, more popular or richer than you. And there's someone else fitter, faster, thinner, quicker, smarter, more popular or richer than they are. And you're (far) ahead of someone else who is busy looking at you from behind.

And yet we see people angry because someone's passing their car, or gaining more followers online. They mistakenly believe it's a race. It rarely is.

If you can use your situation as fuel, fuel to dig in and care more and do better, by all means.

But if not, ignore it. Do your work, not theirs.

A professional stumbler

Leo's working hard to do something he's never done before. He's just turned one, and he doesn't know how to walk (yet).

There are no really useful books or videos on how to walk. It's something he has to figure out on his own. But instead of waiting on the couch until the day he's ready to proudly strut across the room, he's there, on the floor, every day, trying it out.

He's already discovered a hundred ways that don't work, and stumbled countless times.

But he persists.

I don't know about you, but this is precisely the way I learned how to walk as well.

In fact, it's the way I learned how to do just about everything important. By doing it.

Blame Charles Mochet

The standards of your industry and our culture were set a long time ago. So long ago that we often forget why... we forget and then we fail to change them.

In 1934, the rules of bike racing were changed to ban recumbent bicycles. And that rule has stood for more than 80 years, because Charles Mochet made the mistake of giving his faster, safer bike to a cyclist who wasn't respected. To preserve the status of existing riders who had paid their dues, the governing bodies banned the bike forever.

All of those riders are now dead, but the rule persists.

Cars have two headlights because horse-drawn carriages had two lanterns. Of course you couldn't put a lantern in the middle, that's where the horse goes. Now, it's easy to make a bar of light, one that illuminates from edge to edge.

And jobs used to be done by men, because statistically, it's easier to find people who can lift heavy objects among the males in the population. But now, most lifting isn't heavy, it requires insight and care instead.

What else is still stuck? 

Make two lists

On one list identify the grievances, disrespects and bad breaks:

  • People who don't like you.
  • Deals that went wrong.
  • Unfair expectations.
  • Bad situations.
  • Unfortunate outcomes.
  • Unfairness.

It's all legitimate, it's all real. Don't hold back.

On the other list, write down the privileges, advantages and opportunities you have:

  • The places where you get the benefit of the doubt.
  • Your leverage and momentum.
  • The things you see that others don't.
  • What's working and what has worked.
  • The resources you can tap.
  • The things you know.
  • People who trust you.

Now, take one list and put it in a drawer. Take the other list and tape it up on your bathroom mirror. Read the list in the drawer once a month or once a year, just to remind you that it's safe and sound. Read the other list every day.

The daily list will determine what you notice, how you interpret what you see and the story you tell yourself about what's happening and what will happen.

You get to pick which list goes where.

Picking your list is possibly the most important thing you'll do all day.

Mental load and the worry cache

It's well known that the team that wins an Olympic relay isn't the fastest at running or swimming—it's the team that handles the handoffs the best.

The same thing is true of your job. The tasks could be done by many people, but someone who is great at your job embraces the mental effort necessary to do task switching, to read between the lines, to keep many balls going at the same time. Strategy and tactics both.

Sometimes, we think that these are the things that get in the way of our work. In fact, they are the work.

Writing a sentence is easy. Deciding what to write in the next sentence is hard.

Making decisions is exhausting. It involves perception and analysis and most of all, taking responsibility. Pretending to lead and manage is a trivial task, because there's no, "what if?"

It turns out that the mental load of management is primarily around experiencing failure.

Actual failure, sure, but mostly potential failure. Imagining failure in advance. All the current things that could go wrong. And more important, the things you're not doing that will be obvious oversights later. Our brains work overtime to cycle through these, to learn to see around corners, to have the guts to delegate without doing the work ourselves (even though that creates more imagined points of failure). Scan, touch, consider, analyze, repeat.

The other thing that's a huge load: Worry. Unlike all the things I've already mentioned, worry isn't actually part of your job. Worry (expressed through non-productive pessimistic cycles over things out of your control) is antithetical to the work you've agreed to do.

Clear your cache of worry.

It'll free up your processor to focus on the useful stuff.

Gorilla marketing

The late Jay Levinson created the Guerrilla Marketing series. I was lucky enough to work with him early in the arc, producing four of them.

One of the core tenets of the books was that marketing was no longer merely the work of giant organizations with giant budgets. That in fact, it was possible to spread an idea with care, guts and effort, not just with money. We wanted people, particularly small businesses, to see that they could be marketers too.

Well, that's no longer a problem. In fact, it's swung so far the other way that we have a new problem.

When marketing was expensive, it was done with care. Not only by committees that worked hard to keep things consistent, but by creators who thought deeply about their long-term reputation.

Today, because noise is everywhere, we're all surrounded by a screaming horde, an open-outcry marketplace of ideas where the race to be heard appears to be the only race that matters. And so subtlety flies out the window, along with a desire to engage for the long haul. Just a troop of gorillas, all arguing over the last remaining banana.

It turns out that there's a useful response... to ignore them. To stick to the work, to the smallest possible audience, to building something worth talking about.

What actually works in a noisy environment isn't more noise—it's the challenging work of earning the benefit of people telling people.

We don't need more hustle. We need more care and generosity. 

What 99% looks like

I did an interview with a leading Turkish vlogger. He sent me his work (in Turkish) and of course, the thing I noticed was this:

Screenshot 2017-05-22 13.50.36

76 people who saw this interview took the time to give it a thumbs down. The interviewer flew across the world and shared his work for free, but 76 people hated it enough to affirmatively vote it down.

Of course, 1% of 108,000 is about a thousand. This is less than a tenth of that.

In fact, 1% of the 10,000 people who voted it up is 100. It's even less than that.

In just about everything we do, 99% approval is astonishing. 

Except online.

Because online, our lizard brain goes straight to the tiny speck, the little number that's easy to magnify.

Ignore it. Shun the non-believers and ship your work.

Accelerating revolutions

Four hundred years ago, almost no one on Earth had tasted coffee. It was too difficult to move things a few thousand miles.

A hundred years ago, if you wanted a cold drink in the summer or needed to ice an injured knee, you were largely out of luck. It took millions of years of cultural and technical evolution to get to the point where people had a freezer in their house.

The industrial revolution was mighty indeed. It paved the Earth, created the middle class and changed everything. And it was a powerhouse for generations, incrementally changing what hadn't been changed yet.

The TV revolution followed, introducing mass marketing as a force that could change our culture.

Then, the 60s brought the computer revolution, which involved large devices capable of sorting, calculating and processing things that were previously unsorted.

We're living right now in the connection revolution, one powered by the internet, in which people connect to people, computers connect to computers and our culture changes ever faster, daily.

The next two revolutions are right around the corner:

The biology revolution, which has had some fits and starts, will transform our bodies and our planet. Once computers are able to see, understand and modify living things, the same acceleration of the last three revolutions will kick in.

And the AI revolution, in which we engage with computers as much as with each other, is showing itself now too.

Faster, ever faster. Moore's law ratchets technology, technology changes the culture, the culture changes the economy and it continues.

Revolutions are impossible, until they're not, and then they seem totally normal.

Iced coffee, anyone?

"But what if it works?"

Fear of success is at least as big a challenge as fear of failure.

Because if it works, things are going to change.

Are you ready for that?

Living in dissatisfaction

For the creator who seeks to make something new, something better, something important, everywhere you look is something unsatisfying.

The dissatisfaction is fuel. Knowing you can improve it, realizing that you can and will make things better—the side effect is that today isn't what it could be.

You can't ignore the dissatisfaction, can't pretend the situation doesn't exist, not if you want to improve things.

Living in dissatisfaction today is the price we pay for the obligation to improve things tomorrow.

The long, slow, deliberate, all hands on deck method is the best we've got

Worth a try.

When a problem isn't easily solved, it might just be that we have to resort to the other method of solving it. Difficult but worth it.

No way out

That's why we burn the boats when we land on the beach.

Because the only way out is through.

It's pretty easy to bail out of a course (especially a free online course that no one even knows you signed up for). Easy to quit your job, fire a client or give up on a relationship.

In the moment, walking out is precisely the best short-term strategy. Sometimes this place is too hard, too unpleasant, too much...

The thing is, though, that the long-term strategy might be the opposite. The best long-term approach might be to learn something, to tough it out, to engage with the challenge. Because once you get through this, you'll be different. Better.

We always have a choice, but often, it's a good idea to act as if we don't.

Off the hook with Milton Friedman

Nearly fifty years ago, Milton Friedman published a polemic, an article that altered the way many people think about corporations and their role in society. Countless writers have explained why it's poorly reasoned, dangerous and wrong. (Including business school deans, Harvard Business Review and Fortune).

The simple message of the simple article was: “there is one and only one social responsibility of business – to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits..."

Friedman does add a parenthetical, "so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud,” but it's clear that his emphasis is on the first part.

Businesses, he argues, should show no corporate responsibility, do nothing to further the goals of an ethical society, do nothing to improve the lives of customers, employees or bystanders—unless these actions coincidentally maximize profits.

An interesting question that most people haven't focused on: why did this dangerous idea catch on and stick around so long?

Here it is 2017, and the Chairman of one of the largest pharma companies in the country is gleefully telling patients and the FDA to live with the costs of his profit seeking, at the same time he pays his CEO more than $95 million a year. Because he can, and, like many who lucked into top jobs at big companies, because his excuse is simple: He's just doing his job.

If the idea is so wrong, if it leads to an erosion of the social contract and the deaths of innocent kids, why are we still discussing it?

Because it's simple, because it diminishes responsibility, and because it comes with prizes and warm chocolate cookies for those in charge.

The simplicity of the argument matches up with its mendacity. There's no need to worry about nuance, no need to lose sleep over choices, no endless laundry list of social ills to worry about. Just make more profit.

Do this, get that.

A simple compass, a north star, a direction to go that absolves the employee/boss of responsibility for anything complicated or nuanced.

People love mechanical simplicity, especially when it benefits them.

The official rules of baseball are more than 250 pages long. Why? Because working the system, cutting corners and winning at all costs long ago replaced playing by the spirit of the game. Since the league can't count on people to act like people acting on behalf of the community, they have to create ever more rules to keep the system in check.

The problem is far worse in a supposed free market. When humans stop acting like humans and instead indicate that they have no choice but to seek every short-term benefit and cut every possible corner, we can no longer trust each other to act responsibly.

Off the hook feels like a simple way out. "I'm just doing my job, and not thinking hard about the side effects (or to be more accurate, the effects) of my actions. Not only that, but one of the things that's part of my job is lobbying to have fewer rules. Because working the refs is good business. And because everyone is doing it, I have no choice but to do it too."

Of course, it's difficult for us to solely blame poor Milton. Lots of us have bad ideas, I've certainly had plenty. No, we need to blame ourselves for letting selfish corporate officers get away with this reasoning. When we go to work, or partner with, or buy stock in a company that signs up for Milton reasoning, we're rewarding people who have long ago stopped acting like people.

Profits are fine, they enable the investment we need to produce value. But almost nothing benefits from being the only thing we seek, and the pursuit of profit at the expense of our humanity is too high a price to pay.

Here's a different version: A business is a construct, an association of human beings combining capital and labor to make something. That business has precisely the same social responsibilities as the people that it consists of. The responsibility to play fairly, to see the long-term impacts of its actions and to create value for all those it engages with.

[PDF]  

Your instincts are better than you think they are

Data is essential. Data lets us incrementally improve just about anything. That keyboard in front of you, the sink in the bathroom down the hall, the supply chain for the food you eat—they were all improved 100,000 times over the years, data-driven evolution toward efficiency.

It's not enough.

We also need you to leap. To leap without sufficient data. To go with your humanity and your instincts and your hunches.

The insightful Bernadette Jiwa's new book is on sale today. I highly recommend all of the books she's written.

Go first, without being sure. I think you'll find something special.

The critic, the mimic and the clown all have one thing in common

They're not doing the work.

Pitching in requires a different kind of focus, and the generosity and humility to actually get something done.

If they stop hiding, they might even produce something significant.

The right effort of generosity

Don't expect much from a drowning man. He's not going to offer you a candy bar or ask how your day was.

He's too busy not drowning.

Generosity takes effort.

It requires the space to take your mind off your own problems long enough to see someone else's.

It requires the confidence to share when a big part of you wants to hoard.

And it requires the emotional labor of empathy.

Generosity begins by trusting ourselves enough to know that we're not actually drowning.

Greatest hits are exhausting

If all you consume is the most-read list, if all you listen to are the hits, if all you eat is the most popular item on the menu—you're missing out.

The web has pushed us to read what everyone else is reading, the hit of the day. But popular isn't the same as important. Popular isn't the same as profound. Popular isn't even the same as useful.

To make something popular, the creator leaves out the hard parts and amps up the crowd-pleasing riffs. To make something popular, the creator knows that she's dumbing things down in exchange for attention.

The songs you love the most, the soundtrack of your life--almost none of them were #1 on the Billboard charts. And the same goes for the books that changed the way you see the world or the lessons that have transformed your life.

Popularity doesn't mean 'best'. It merely means popular.

Thinking clearly about quality

There are at least three ways we use the word 'quality' at work:

Quality as defined by Deming and Crosby: Meeting spec.

If you can reliably, and without drama, deliver precisely what you have promised, this is quality. This is what happens when a car, regardless of price, has doors that don't squeak. Or when a website doesn't go down. Or when your dry cleaning is ready on the day it's promised, and your clothes are clean.

When six sigma professionals talk about quality, this is what they mean. Meeting spec.

Quality as defined by Ralph Lauren or Tiffany: The quality of deluxeness.

This is when the clarity of the diamond or the nap of the leather or the speed of the jet is something that most others can't match. This is not just, "you get what you pay for," but also, "you paid a lot."

And finally, there's the quality of right effort, of "I did my best," of the sweat and vulnerability that happens when a human has given it her all.

That TV show or that software that you love: what do you love about it? What about the calculus you put into shopping for a car or a school for your kids? 

A $100 million-dollar movie might have more spectacular special effects or be more carefully edited, but it might not have the quality that you find in an indie film.

When you're doing your work, when you're creating an offering, there's no more important question to answer than, "what sort of quality are we seeking here?"

There is no right answer

But there are plenty of wrong ones.

In arithmetic, there's a right answer. And everything else is wrong.

But in the work we do, there are, in fact, plenty of creative, useful, generous answers, answers good enough to embrace and celebrate. In the creative world, there can't be a 'right' answer, because that implies that the answer is correct and exclusive. 

But the wrong answers are clear as well. They are selfish, lack rigor, are short-term when long-term is needed. They're lazy, too expensive, defective or have significant side effects...

By all means, avoid the wrong answers. But don't hold out waiting for the correct one.

« May 2017 | Main