Notes from Business of Software Conference 2017

I speak tomorrow at the Business of Software conference. Here are my notes from the sessions so far.

1. Jason Cohen : Healthy, wealthy and wise

“This is not a presentation, a sermon” – a passage from the book of hackernews. “I don’t want to be a founder anymore – there’s a lot to lose from speaking how I feel. We’re profitable, growing, debt free and about to be acquired. The problem is I am supremely unhappy”

The founder who posted this had four choices:

  • Quit, killing company
  • Hate the next 2-5 years
  • Fix it
  • Keep running the company

It seems to be a common pattern that founders aren’t happy despite achieving all the things they set out to do (See Credit-Suisse research study).

You have to decide to face some ugly , emotional truths – no one will force you to since you have no boss. It’s easy to be a victim of your own denial.

Jason asked the room “who here has taken too long to fire someone?” and most people raised there hands. “Too soon” – on ly a few people. There’s the good reason, and then there’s the real reason we do (or don’t do) thing.

2×2: matrix, Things that don’t need to be done, needs to be done, want to do, don’t want to do

The fact that a thought won’t go away, and keeps you up at night, is a good indicator it’s something you need to deal with.The emotionally tough choice is usually the right choice.

How to do the tough thing:

  • Be swift: delay never helps, often hurts
  • Be decisive: flapping hurts
  • Be kind: to the person, to others, to yourself

Someone is always the smartest people in the room, but many people might believe that it’s them.

A players hire A. B’s hire Cs.. The presumption is that as an A, you are an A at everything, but when you take on a new role, like finance, even after a couple of months you are not really an A. And when you hire, you are calibrating against yourself, so you unintentionally hire a C and staff new roles or departments with C.

“We don’t hire smart people to tell them what to do. We hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”

Be an editor, not a writer. Hold people to hire standards, but hire people who can do their own job/role better than you can.

Action oriented vs. results oriented – results are about outcomes and customer satisfaction, action is just a series of acts and choices

He told the story of selling his first company Smart bear. He got an offer and talked to his wife, who said “you have to sell.” And he asked why. And she said “Don’t you know how unhappy you are?” And even when he sold the business, he thought he’d feel better, but not at first. It took a long time to resort himself.

2. Seth Godin, Lessons from 33 years in software

Has been marketing software for many decades, almost 40 years.

  1. Just because its good software doesn’t mean it’s a good business.
  2. B2B is different  (if you type in B2B in google image search it’s all handshaking). Purchasers are spending other people’s money – different from selling to customers. They need to know “what will I tell my boss?” without something better, they will buy the cheapest one assuming they are all the same. Your job is to reduce fear.
  3. The connection ratchet (or racket). Phone booths do not improve as more people try to use the same one. Metcalf’s law vs. Fight Club. Instead of thinking of funnels, think of megaphones. Purple cow is remarkable, which means something worth making a remark about. “make things in a way that they are worth talking about”. The marketing of ringtones is built in to ringtones themselves. People like us do things like this (e.g. instead of bilboards and TV ads,we need to think about the minimum viable audience of passionate people)
  4. Packaging is obsolete. Infocom games and competitors invested in packaging and how things appeared on the shelf. Album and CD covers.
  5. The art of promising. If we over-promise to get in the door, you are set up to disappoint.
  6. Free (Price) is not related to cost. Three reasons to make software free: 1) engagement 2) to get people hooked (to upgrade) 3) spread the word. Customer traction means to get people using and talking about your software.
  7. Make it Matter. 

3. Natalie Nagele, Keeping the fun in your business life

Managers job is to create an environment – the business exists not strictly for the customer but also for the team (especially if sustainability is the goal – a future proof organization). A team is committed to each other, not just a product (it’s easier to replace a product that a team).

Culture sometimes happens to you. As the founders age the culture will tend to shift with them, but this isn’t the best way as the founder centric culture can leave other people behind (e.g. she had her first child and the company became more family friendly).

She tried to enforce culture through policy but at a retreat she learned from her team that they weren’t fond of this approach. They asked the question: what are our values (what do we expect from ourselves)? how do we support them? And clarify the values to new people who join? This was the first time they took culture seriously and clarified their intentions.

Why do people have a job? 1) Success of purpose in their professional life 2) Enable a life outside of work (we work for our hobbies). Work to live or live to work? The came up with these values for the company:

  1. Wildbit is product agnostic. We exist to support our team.
  2. As individuals, we are self-motivated and constantly improving our craft.
  3. As a team, we support each other to do the work of our lives.
  4. We expect great things from ourselves. You should expect the same from everyone else.
  5. We are motivated and rewarded by our customer’s success.

Perks: Flexible working hours, profit sharing, competitive salaries, private offices + best benefits we can afford

There is nothing wrong with being a regular business. You don’t need to a lifestyle business, or a growth business, or a Unicorn magical business. Business are not built for martyrdom. There is no obligation to be a workaholic or not to have time for ordinary pleasures.

Growing to sell vs Growing to keep: if you are growing to sell you are making a huge bet that a final success (acquisition) will validate and pay for all of the sacrifice and debt along the way. But if you grow to keep, you have a sustainable and reasonable business (and founder salary) along the way, and likely have a better negotiating position. Take care of yourself so you have the incentive to keep going. Many founders exit because they are tired and broke.

Quit serving the business, serve the people. And by doing this, it serves the founders too.

Don’t grow unless it brings you joy – Seth Godin

4. Chris Savage, Scaling Well

When you are scaling big problems are scarier – there is more money and more people impacted. Communication as you scale gets hard.

Clarity and authenticity are important, but tone is part of the message too. And the medium you use changes it (an email vs. a text vs a post – different levels of formality).

He told a story about a major issue that the leadership team felt was best solved by raising prices. When they told the team, they revolted and said “it can’t be done.” They formed a new team to own the problem – they did something very different. Instead of going off to discuss in private (like the leadership team did) they worked on the problem openly. They reached a similiar conclusion, but because the problem was solved openly people’s responses were different.

Lesson: Solve big problems openly – instead of shielding people from uncertainty, it creates fear and a whiplash effect

As a company scales, finding time to think becomes a challenge. At the beginning it’s much easier. He showed his schedule one year after the company started and it was mostly empty.

Work life unbalance: his calendar and schedule made it seem like he was a balanced person, but he wasn’t present with his family and friends. He forgot that thinking is work. Running a company is a creative endeavor in a different way that starting a company.

Problems are rarely schedule problems, they are people problems. You need to delegate more or get better people. Being busy is a people problem, not a productivity problem.

  • Focus on Tone
  • Solve big problems openly
  • Don’t feel guilty having free time

Notes from Mind The Product 2017

I speak later today at Mind The Product, an event about product management and design, in London. Here are my notes from the sessions so far.

1. Martin Erikson

Product management is about people. You can only build products people love as a team. Product managers are not the CEO of anything. Regardless of your job title, we are all product people. Perhaps instead of calling ourselves product people, we should call ourselves people people. We can only learn how to do this well by coming together and sharing what works and what doesn’t. Which is why he founded Product tank – the core community behind this conference. 1592 product people from 52 countries are here today. The goal for today is to meet the people who mind the product.

2. Jake Knapp , author of Sprint

(hi-five training – the secret is to watch the elbow, not the hand)

2001 – Jake worked on Encarta (Remember CD-ROMs?). Soon wikipedia launched, which they found interesting but didn’t take as a threat. But by 2003 it had more artiles than Encarta did, and using the web for research, which was always there and always free, even if the quality wasn’t great.

Jake proposed an idea – it took months to prototype, build and ship. And they did. It was a more web-like design for Encarta. But unlike today, you had to go to physical stores to buy software (no-app store). The box design was important – and the logical thing would be to show the new design and the name of the product – but they didn’t. They made the mistake of waiting till the end to involve the marketing team, which went with a generic design. The major redesign work earned a single bulleted list buried on the front. Soon Encarta’s market share declined until the product was killed (if you do a google search for Encarta, the first result is from Wikipedia).

He went to Google in 2006 and recognized they often followed the same broken process. And sometimes with 20% projects the idea would spin out of control and never quite launch. Later on a project called “Google Meeting” and they built a prototype and stating sharing it around the company. In 2011 it launched as google hangouts.

In 2010 he experimented with the idea of design sprints. In 2012 he went to join Google Ventures, which worked with startups. He was curious about how startups managed the ideas and time and discovered it was similar to the same old failed process, with marketing coming in late at the end, too late.

Build-Data-Idea cycle – classic notion of not going too far without validating and adjusting.

The perfect week (the design sprint): get rid of all default habits of scheduling, and follow a system (aim for the elbow). By default, teams are fragmented. But in a sprint everyone is all together in the same room for the entire week.

Monday: Map – focus on one key moment for the customer. You draw a map of the flow of interaction for how the customer will walk through the experience.

Tuesday: Sketch – everyone sketches – you work alone, but together in the same room. Everyone quietly sketches solutions and then gather together to discuss them.

Wednesday: Decide – silent review of sketches, structured discussion of each idea, and the “decider” makes the call

Thursday: Prototype – the work gets divided up and simple tools get used to mock things up and stich them together. With hotspots it’s not hard to create something you could even show to a customer and walkthrough the experience.

Friday: Test – get quick and dirty data with 1:1 interview, with no sales pitch and asking them to think aloud. 5 interviews and the rest of the team takes notes. Observations are put on wall with post-it notes to compare observations.

Next sprint: Repeat and perfect

Some organizations plan to run a sprint at the start of each quarter, and then have enough confidence to push through to building a shipping. Jake has run 150+ design sprints.

He told a story of designing a delivery robot for hotels. One problem was that people had way too high expectations (from movies) of what robots could do. Using a design sprint, they experimented with three ideas: games, faces and dancing. The game idea didn’t work, but a simple face design combined with “dance” (more of a shimmy) was just charming enough without setting people’s expectations too high.

Design sprints allow you to take big risks, and focus on the moments of the experience that matter the most, without costing very much (one week).

3. Blade Kotelly  (Advanced Research Lab, Sonos)

Edison didn’t invent the light bulb. It was Joseph Swan. But Edison successfully made it into a product and changed the world.

He asked the audience questions: Is innovation important? (many hands) Is user experience important? (many hands) Does user experience as a competency have a strategic role at your company? (few hands). He implied this was a mistmatch of ambition and reality.

A problem well stated is a problem half-solved. – Charles Kettering

He uses a ten step process in the design thinking course he teaches.

  1. Identify
  2. Gather Information
  3. Stakeholder Analysi
  4. Operational Research
  5. Research
  6. Hazard Analysis
  7. Specification
  8. Creative design
  9. Conceptual design
  10. Verification

Two phases of innovation:

  • Phase 1: Learning how to think about solving the problem, defining questions to use to help define the problem. “Is this really a problem? Who’s problem is it? What words best describe the problem?” (He calls this experience center-lining)
  • Phase 2: Standard design process

Apple Newton had the wrong centerline. Processor wasn’t fast enough, it was expensive and too big. The Palm Pilot had the right centerline.

4. Teresa Torres

She worked on a project for college alumni, and by accident they were allowing spam to go out to the mailing lists they had created. They brainstormed and one idea that teammate Seth suggested was to add google maps so alumni could see where they all are. She asked “how does this solve the problem?” – and he said it didn’t, but it was cool and would drive engagement. She asked the rest of the team and they agreed. Teresa was baffled.

We fall in love with our ideas, even if they don’t apply to the situation at hand. We have to remember to ask “is this idea any good”. We tend to consider one idea at a time, when we should be asking “compare and contrast” questions. Good is not an absolute trait, but we often assume that it is. When we consider more ideas we ask better questions.

She realized she didn’t take the time to get the team focused on the real problem at hand. The notion of problem space and solution space have (gratefully) become more popular.

She found value in the book Peak, by Anders Erickson. Which explained that experts have more sophisticated mental representations of reality than novices. Teresa came to the meeting from customer visits and was thinking about their problems. But Seth had just read about Google Maps APIs, so his framework was different.

It’s hard to prioritize a list of unlike items. You need a system or process to ensure you are thinking clearly about the comparisons you make. She described the Opportunity Solution Model, a tree like visual tool for framing problems to aid in critical thinking. If you focus on too many problems you end up with shallow solutions.

Instead of arguing about who’s idea is better, you instead argue about which problem is more important to solve.

She explained how dot voting is a handy technique to use with teams to sort through candidate ideas.

Notes from PPP 2017 Chicago

I spoke this morning at Prototypes, Process and Play, in Chicago about The Dance of The possible (slides, sketchnotes). Here are my notes from the sessions so far.

2. Making Moonshots, Mathew Milan

Leadership is the reduction of uncertainty in an organization – Paul Pangaro

Reference: The Little Grey Book on Leadership, Paul Pangero

Question: how do you help reduce uncertainty? Perspective, principles and practices. Creating confidence by reducing uncertainty. The challenge is that then average Fortune 500 company lasts 15 years. A company needs to find a way to replace an entire better business while it’s still running.

He used to think CEOs were stupid. They say the same simple stuff over and over again. Now he realizes repetition is everything. “By end of the decade, we are going to put a man on the moon” – Executives have to deal with huge amounts of risk, and repetition and clarity is one way to provide it.

  • Designers (Engineers) ask: What is possible? How might we do it?
  • C-level asks: Can we do this, should we do this?

Tesla’s Secret Plan – Great example of a CEO managing risk right.

  • Build a sports car
  • Use that to build an affordale car
  • Use that to build an even more affordable car
  • While doing above, provide zerio emission power
  • Don’t tell anyone

General Principles:

  1. Don’t start from scratch
  2. Set high level goals, not detailed path
  3. Break into small steps
  4. Address big risks as early as possible
  5. Prototype your way into production

The risk of deferring risk

  1. You don’t know what you don’t know
  2. You push the unknown into the future
  3. Your exposure to unknown compounds

Test your biggest risks first – often it’s not design risk, it’s technological risk.

RAT: Riskiest assumption test – It’s more important to vet risks first than to explore what’s possibly viable.

Innovation is s search problem – The pivot approach works fine when you are small and fast, in a small startup. But for large organizations you need a portfolio.

3Carmen Medina, Lead Above Mediocre Thinking

She worked for the CIA for many years, and for a time, in/on South Africa. They had a ‘design problem’ called apartheid. Led her to ask the questions: What is good thinking? What can we do to do better thinking? She had a great group of analysts, but were so divided on fundamental questions: how soon will black majority rule come to SA and how disastrous will it be?

Thinking Errors

  1. Street Lights – we base our decisions on information is readily available. CIA had bias like Regan administration views, the questions we asked our sources, etc. (No one asked Sadam’s people in IRAQ if he had gotten rid of WMDs).
  2. Trends. We assume trends are about the future, but trends are about the past. The years leading up to the stock crash of 1929 look normal and positive.
  3. “X happened by chance” – what does that mean? Nothing happens by chance. What we’re really describing an event whose causality we do not yet understand.
  4. Exponential causality – When one event happens it doesn’t have one effect, it has a multiplicity of effects.
  5. Worst Case – we tend to conflate worst case scenario with low probability.

“There are no solutions only tradeoffs” – Thomas Sewell

Solutions are rare, tradeoffs are common – so your value system plays a big role.

Ways to lead better thinking

1. Develop an Analytic Landscape – she gave these instructions to her research teams:

  1. work independently
  2. engage outsiders
  3. provide a graphical presentation
  4. Don’t simply document what you already know

2. Articulate Thinking Strategy – Complex situations are dangerous because experts try to reduce a problem into boxes they know, when you want/need to admit the problem isn’t simplifaible.

3. Know your thinking Style – What appeals to you and what do you tend to like? Find a thinking partner who complements your style. This broadens the analytic landscape and reduces bias.

4. Think Together from the start 

5. Respect your intuition – when your mind tells you something without thinking it in words. Our thinking capacity can be different, or larger, than our word capacity.

Her book: Rebels at Work : A Handbook for Leading Change from Within

A manager/leader must make clear their ideas are not above debate. These questions help:

  • What did I get wrong?
  • How would you do it differently?

4. Julia Keren Detar, user research on shoestring budget

5. Nicole Maynard, Cultivating Happiness

Hyatt (where she works as director of UX) is in the business of hospitality. There was a time in her life when she was in despair, so she took the day off and read about the neuroscience of happiness.

Brains are more fertile for weeds than flowers ( “can I eat it or mate with it?”, vs. “can it hurt me or kill me?”). Negative bias keeps us alive: great for survival, but bad in some ways for modern life.

The Amygdala in our brains triggers the fight or flight response, even to negative events. The Hippocampus stores the memory of even a minor thing, in an attempt to prevent it happening again. It’s easy for small loops of negative experience to dominate how we feel about the world.

Neuroplasticity – the more (or less) you use a pattern, the more or (less) well or easily it fires.

7 suggestions:

  1. Mindfullness – Headspace, buddhify. Easy exercise: close eyes, take a deep breath, let it out and think about the comfort the chair you are in is providing.
  2. Reminice – thinking about good memeories is a way to bring positive mental states back into the prescent.
  3. Walk it off – Any exercise that increases your heart rate for 20 minutes or more releases endorphines.
  4. Feed your brain – Borccoli, Spinach, Avocados, Walnots, Almonds, Blueberries
  5. Genorisity – happiness is making someone happy
  6. Give thanks – acknowling how people have been good to you
  7. Play time – if needed, schedule time for play (she schedules time to play with her team, an afternoon every month – board games/etc.)

6. Donna Lichaw, Leading with story

Having a seat at the table doesn’t mean anyone will listen to you. You need to have a story that explains your purpose, goal and narrative that is compelling to people you encounter.

What scientists tell us is story, or narratives, developed through evolution as a very powerful way to communicate and get people to listen to us.

Walt Disney told the story of Disneyland “a place where the parents and the children could have fun together”. This kind of clarity is what she wanted from her CEO, but didn’t get.

Alex Bloomberg, who is a master of storytelling (podcasts) utterly failed to tell the story of his own business idea – storytelling can be hard, even for people who are skilled at storytelling, if they’re deep in the details. Good storytelling means stepping back to see a bigger picture and telling that, often much simpler but stronger, story.

She led her team (fitness app) in story discovery exercises, the first of which didn’t work well. It was hard. She arrived at thinking of her team as story sleuths – a different way to think about product design. Instead of the traditional skills, it’s about being willing and motivated to sort through all of the possible stories for a project and decide on a primary one. She used the apple iPhone design/experience, from opening the box (e.g. OOBE – out of box experience) to how Jobs demoed the iPhone focused on telling a story (Google maps was the premier app, and he showed the way the pin ‘bounces’ as it appears as the conclusion of the story at the heart of the demo).

Disneyworld had problems with customer traffic in the park. They created a team (FAB5) to solve the problem, and they eventually came up with the Disney Magic Band. One device that let you access everything: hotel room, the park, rides and more. They employed some of the same story techniques that Disney teams used in their films. Including prototyping and simulating design ideas and learning from those experiments.

“you get to the be hero, promising a ride or a meet and greet. Then you’re freerer to explore the park” – Disney, COO

She applied some of these same ideas to her product team, and as they built their story they realized they needed to redesign and reconfigure many of the core ideas, from design to business model. This violated her rule of “don’t do redesigns” – but she realized that many of their past struggles was because the story wasn’t clear. They made redesign prototypes based on the story to help convince management. For her startup, the stakes were relatively high for the company, but not the same as what would be for a billion dollar product.

For FAB5 the stakes for Disney were billions of dollars. They brought executives in to experience a walkthrough of the simulations of their ideas, based on the story.

When you have a story floating through a system (organization) it helps all points of connection and relationship to work more smoothly.

Questions to ask:

  • what is the story?
  • who is your hero?
  • what is their goal?
  • how do you make this story happen?

Book – the user’s journey

7. Lisa Welchman, Governing With Intention

Seduced from her voice major to study philosophy (suggesting the power of a good teacher), which led her on a path to work on the web in the early days. During this time was clear to her that even Cisco (where I think she worked) couldn’t manage their website, despite being in the middle of the early internet. IT and marketing fought with each other. This kind of work is hard, especially at scale, and has natural tensions that are hard to remedy.

Governing things is just being clear about who is accountable and who makes decisions. While everyone has good intentions, a lack of clarity creates problems.

Q: How can I work with people, create something of value and still maintain a sense of personal agency and autonomy?

“It’s just work” – it’s not just work, work is a big part of your life.

“Organizations are a competition between compliance and creation” – Kevin Ashton, How to Fly a Horse

It’s a fallacy to think that work in an organization can be “done:. “When is digital going to be done?” is an absurd question. It’s a living thing. There are always new things coming in and others leaving, nicely or violently.

It’s important to clarify before meetings and processes begin:

  • Who should inform strategy?
  • Who should frame policy?
  • Who should define standards?
  • Who should be in the room?

Standards do not restrict creativity – by constraining certain decisions other things are liberated:

  • Speech, Music, Movable type, Our genes, Telephony, computing (languages), the WWW, etc.
  • Policies (which are a kind of standard) protect the organization and provide opportunities

Murmuration – how birds move in flocks. They pay attention to the nearest 7 birds around them, They don’t need to know what all the birds are doing, but some simple rules useful patterns emerge.

8. Mike Davidson, Interview / Chat

(this was a live interview on stage with Russ Unger – these are my rough notes on what was a fun and insightful conversation, but hard to capture)

Mike was VP of Design at Twitter, which had a staff of 100 people when he left. He’s been on sabbatical for over a year.

Twitter can be a poor place to discuss something that involves nuance. It becomes more of a performance where each person is performing for their followers, where you say things you’d never say face to face. Not a great place for design critique in particular, where the goal should be helping the designer do better work.

It’s common in the industry to see designers prefer to work in isolation, as it’s a natural way people learn, and are drawn to the field. But it’s not that useful in a workplace with different specializations and teams.He doesn’t like the term soft skills – it’s really just being a good person and teammate and valuing relationships.

Revisionist history: after a project launches and doesn’t do well there’s often a recasting in organizations of the initial premise and risk threshold – “who approved a project with a 25% likelihood of succeeding?” even though that was deliberate and done with strategic intent to take risks.Bezos – I want Amazon to be the best company in the world to fail at.

Design teams need to have two sets of goals: for the design team and for the rest of the project team. A goal like “every pixel counts” makes sense for designers, but not necessarily for an engineer. You need goals that are shared and sensible across the organization too.

As a manager he wanted to be sharp enough with individual designer skills for two reasons: to be able to empathize and understand what his staff is doing, and also to be able to call bullshit and challenge assumptions.

Many designs launched without his direct approval. They had a weekly product review, with the CEO and other important people, where every team would show their prototype and discuss it for an hour. One week, the events team came in and the designer showed something he’d never seen before. And his heart went into his throat. The CEO turned to him and asked “what do you think?” And he made it through the meeting ok, but turned to the designer after and asked them not to do this again.

People think companies are like a single threaded organization, like a kids soccer team, where everyone just follows the ball. But this is rarely the case.

Conway’s law– “Any organization that designs a system (defined broadly) will produce a design whose structure is a copy of the organization’s communication structure.”

Basic rundown on his design leadership / management roles:

  • Design manager level 1 – focus on team, little studio/company influence
  • Design manager level 2 – more influence across the design studio
  • Director level – must pick something that improves the entire design organization
  • Senior director – must influence the entire organization in some way

Decision quality is different from Outcome quality. A good decision can lead to a bad outcome, and vice-versa.

It’s fortunate to work on a project important enough for people to complain about it visibly in public. Most designers don’t get the opportunity to work on things that visible or important.

Day 2

9. Jay Newton-Small, Broad Influence

She was a Time correspondent during the government shutdown years ago. Around the same time The senate reached 20% women for the first time (113th Congress).

Critical mass – point at which a chain reaction can not be stopped. When they integrated schools in the U.S. they decided critical mass was about 20%.

Public sector is often better for women:

  • Lower wages means less competition for jobs (which, sadly, works to women’s advantage)
  • Unions are stronger (and able to get maternity leave / etc.)
  • Bosses are different – you answer to voters and women vote more than men do (on avg 10%, and make up 53% of voting electorate)

Facts (unsourced):

  • CIA is 47% women.
  • 17% of mayors are women
  • 5% of governors and
  • 5% of fortune 1000 CEOs.
  • Some stats are hard to find: what % of police officers are women? No one knows. It’s all local data (rough estimate nationally is 14%). There are some initiatives to get better data.

The glass cliff: women put in power are pushed off the cliff if they don’t succeed.

Women are often judged (unfairly) for trying to inspire or speaking with power. Hillary was criticized for being shrill, yet Bernie Sanders could have been criticized similarly at many of his speeches, but rarely was.

We had universal child care during WWII, while women dominated the workforce. But it wasn’t until the 1970s that all of the laws preventing women from working without their husband’s permission were finally repealed.

By the year 2030 this generation will age out and the U.S. workforce will be short 2 million workers. There’s two ways to solve it. Immigration, which is hard to imagine. Or you open it up to women in the workforce. Women already have the talents to do this. They make up half of college degrees. They’re just not using them. But this is not going to happen naturally. It’s something that’s going to have to be invented. Child care. How you get women sort of free enough to take on the bigger jobs. And part of that comes from men helping. The next generation is millennials. They are the first generation born assuming equality in the sexes. They’re the first generation born to working women. It’s a hallmark of their generation. They actually have a lot more equality than other generations.

Asked about it by the audience, she felt the premise of the recent Google memo was ridiculous, citing evidence from the beginnings of the software industry and how it was dominated by women. But that was lost in the last couple of decades largely because of society’s changing view of what is sexy or appropriate for women to do.

She was asked what to do in the workplace to work against gender bias. She suggested:

  • Make allies (with other women) – often women have equal numbers, but don’t act to support each other in meetings in the ways men sometimes do
  • Obama suggested to his female staff (who complained about bias) that they need to have dinner together regularly to form bonds and connections that will manifest in the workplace
  • Stand up for other women – if you observe a woman suggest something that’s ignored only to have a man successfully suggest the same thing later, call it out and help her get credit
  • Don’t fall into the trap of doing menial work your peers don’t do  – it’s easy (in some workplace cultures) to be seen as being in a lesser or supportive role, especially if you are new to the organization

Her book: Broad Influence: How women are changing the way America works.

The term broad originated years ago as a reference to women’s broad hips.

Australian advocacy group: Male Champions for Change

10. Dr. Steve Julius, Getting a Seat at the table

“It isn’t that they can’t see the solution. It’s that they can’t see the problem” – G.K. Chesterton

“I have so much to offer, but I feel they don’t want to hear it” – the truth might be you have to wait for an opportunity, perhaps over weeks or months, for the timing to be right.

Four levels of breadth/depth (of work relationships):

  • Service Offering
  • Needs Based
  • Relation ship based
  • Trust based

5 principles

  • Know your stuff
  • Uncover Ways to Add Value
  • Be Credible
  • Execute
  • Listen

Think like an anthropologist

  • Observe and learn before you act
  • What is the power structure? What language do they use?
  • Where do the real decisions happen? (at happy hour? At golf?)
  • Adapt your approach, speak their language

Stages of Change

Formal vs. Earned authority

  • What is my purposes?
  • How does my narrative convey the idea?
  • How best can people put my idea into practice?
  • Who do I really want to reach?
  • Do I have meaning supporting material?

“It is easier to resist at the beginning than at the end” – Leonard Da Vinci

11, Dan Brown, Achieving The Right Mindset

Card game – Surviving Design Projects

Where do you start when a client shows up and tells you what they want?

  • Who is your audience?
  • What are your underlying assumptions?

The questions you ask, and work with clients to answer, start big and get smaller as you go through the design process. He calls this the discovery process and the goal is to created a shared pool of experience (‘remember when we did that user study?’) about what worked and what didn’t. It’s best to think of discovery as a mindset.

Mindset means how we:

  • Perceive
  • Understand
  • Choose how to react

It’s often hard to work with other people – people are weird! But mindset helps. What do we perceive? Maybe we or they misunderstood something that needs to be clarified about their behavior than once understood changes how we react.

Critique sessions that go wrong can be thought of as failure of mindset. Some people see critique as a fight, or a way to get revenge. But a healthy critique mindset is that your coworkers are there to help you improve your ideas, and you theirs.

Carol Dweck’s Mindset: The psychology of success –

Fixed Mindset vs. Growth Mindset: things you refuse to do because it may undermine your sense of your self vs. things you willingly choose to embrace.

Six more precise mindsets:

  • Adaptability: ready and willing to try new things
  • Collective: use other points of view and inputs
  • Assertiveness: working with incomplete knowledge (‘here’s what I do know, and what I can try to do to resolve what I don’t know’)
  • Curious: excited to learn new things (ask questions, talk to new people, follow hunches
  • Skepticism: don’t accept assertion at face value
  • Humility: You need to be bold (in growth mindset) but be humble about the prospect of learning or having your assumptions challenged by new information. Listening is an act of humility. As is asking someone to teach you or give you feedback. Saying “I don’t know” is healthy and invites people to contribute. It’s good to ask “How am I learning on this project?”

“I don’t get further by hoarding credit” – a bonus behavior is crediting other people.

“Ask questions like everyone else is wrong. Explore them like you are” – Emily S. Klein

Mindsets translate perceptions to actions. List of actions:

  • Ask questions
  • List assumptions
  • Say I don’t know
  • Follow Hunches
  • Play devil’s advocate
  • Find improvement everywhere

12. Kathi Kaiser, How to start a company

Design methods (Set goal, gather data, prototype, test, iterate) apply to anything, including designing a company.

Starting a company starts with the hierarchy of needs: basics first.

  • Physiological: Food on the table
  • Safety: Steady Pipeline
  • Social: Nice Clients
  • Esteem: Cool Projects
  • Self Actualization: Work hard, play hard

In the early days, with a small organization, this was straightforward. But as the company grew, this wasn’t enough.

  • Self transcendence: the act of helping others self-actualize

People first: you take care of your staff, your staff takes care of the company

Their first office design was a disaster: the owners were up in the loft, literally looking down on the staff below. They redesigned, involving the team, prototyped alternatives, and found a much more workable arrangement.

An experiment they tried was to involve the staff in leading projects that were ‘backoffice’ like setting up health insurance, or suppliers for equipment, and to their surprise most of the staff was motivated to own these kinds of projects.

13. Suzanna Bierwirth, Managing Up, Down and Sideways

[Also see Amy’s notes – they’re better]

The wrong reason to be a manager is to get a salary raise. You may promote a designer to a manager, and lose a good designer and get a bad manager.

To be a manager means you are no longer judged for your individual work, but by what the people on your team produce. Delegate or die.

  • Know your people’s strengths and weaknesses
  • You are responsible no matter what happens (if they miss a deadline, you didn’t give them enough resources)
  • Know how key people like information delivered to them
  • Never let your boss be surprised by bad news or something going wrong
  • Pitch needs in a way that ties to your boss’s goals – don’t say “I need more staff”, instead say “I’m turning down jobs – there’s too much work to manage.” They will likely suggest the natural answer to the problem, and you are more likely to get what you want

13. Eli Silva, Designing for Diversity

Hurricane Sandy took out large portions of NY and NJ in 2012. The scale of the disaster made responses challenging. People didn’t know what the Red Cross was doing (Propublica wrote a story about it). Eli was there, working on Occupy Sandy, a grass roots response –  it has shaped the way he thinks about design.

It was his first organization design exposure – an org designed to meet real human needs.

Advanced persistent neglect

Often PD and OD have different value systems:

  • Product Design: listen to user. Test. discard. Ask question. Clarify. Repeat.
  • Org design: welcome to your desk. This is who you report to. Please keep you hands feet and questions inside the dominant paradigm and role based structure at all times.

A better culture demands we challenge assumptions where they are most entrenched. And apply some principles from products to organizations.

“Some people don’t like to take responsibility for their own shit. They blame everything in their life on somebody else.” – Uber CEO, Travis Kalanick

Diversity debt – impacts of not having a diverse set of people, ideas and cultures in your organization. Often created from short term tradeoffs or ignorance.

Mckinsey Report of 366 pubic companies showed bottom line benefits of diversity.

Google spent $265 million on the effort to improve diversity and it mostly failed.

Even the most powerful ideas in the world cannot survive persistent institutional dysfunction.

  • Inclusion – creating conditions for org reflection, course correction and change by design. Saying “I have an open door policy” is not sufficient to ensure that policy is used effectively.
  • Participatory design – approaches that invite all stakeholders (employees, users, citizens) into the design process to better understand and meet the complex needs of everyone

Things to do:

  • Are your job postings biased?
  • How many under represented people even make it into your hiring pipeline?
  • What is their attrition rate in first 90 days?
  • Is their an inclusion officer? Visible inside the org? To the public?
  • Embrace the idea of ‘culture add’ – make it a priority to invite people into design conversations likely to spark meaningful debate
  • Is their training for unconscious bias?
  • Do your exit interviews and 1-on-1s include any discussion of these topics?

UX/Business/Tech -> People/Advocacy/Practices -> Balanced People Team

Netflix’s updated guide to culture – an analysis & commentary

In 2009 Netflix released a slidedeck outlining their  company culture and I summarized its core themes with commentary in a popular post. This week Netflix released the first major update and here’s the rundown.

What changed in 8 years?

The most striking change is that it’s no longer a slidedeck, but an actual document of corporate philosophy. Part of the thrill of their original release was that the format, which was an internal presentation, gave the sense we were seeing something not designed for public consumption and was therefore more authentic.

That allure is gone: they removed the mocking references to Enron’s corporate values or high priced employee sushi lunches. Also gone is the cheesy yin/yang symbol and the generic Arial font (It’s Gotham now). The interesting charts have also been removed. This is now as much a reflection of a mature organization’s wish for how to be perceived as it a tool for attracting talent they think will fit their ideals.

The Good:

Most of the major points I identified from the original are still here.

  • “Our core philosophy is people over process.” They emphasize in many places how little they care for bureaucracy or the status quo. Tied to this is a demanding philosophy of performance and high expectations.
  • “The real values of a firm are shown by who gets rewarded or let go.” It’s rare for an organization to talk explicitly about the central value of firing people (See Innovation by firing people). They wisely identify how empty most corporate value statements are, especially when people are allowed to remain in the organization who violate them. (A problem I called out in my critique of Airbnb’s culture document).
  • Their list of core values is good, but commonplace. As they point out, it’s easy to make lists of values but far harder to find leaders willing to uphold them (“It’s easy to write admirable values; it’s harder to live them”). Their list includes: Judgement, Communication, Curiosity, Innovation, Courage, Passion, Selflessness, Inclusion, Integrity, Impact. A fine list but similiar to ones many companies have.
  • We are a Team, not a Family. This new clarification was compelling. “A family is about unconditional love, despite your siblings’ unusual behavior. A dream team is about pushing yourself to be the best teammate you can be… and knowing that you may not be on the team forever.” A team is a better metaphor for workplaces in many ways than families are, and too often when executives try to explain their ideas of culture, they use family models (permanent, based on respect, unique) rather than team ones (flexible, based on performance, many can exist). One misstep is Netflix’s odd use of  ‘unconditional love’ and ‘sibling’s unusual behavior’.  It makes it sound like they have a negative view of families more than it clarifies how they want teams to function. I think they were trying to say that respect on a team is conditional and based on behavior, which they could have said without bringing weird siblings or asides about familial love into it. I’m sure some of their employees have odd habits, as weird as some siblings, and the presumption is they want coworkers to be accepting and supportive.
  • The No Asshole Rule. They refer to this as “no brilliant jerks” but it’s clearly in line with Bob Sutton’s The No Asshole Rule philosophy. Their justification is simple: ‘on a dream team, there are no brilliant jerks The cost to teamwork is just too high. Our view is that brilliant people are also capable of decent human interactions, and we insist upon that.’
  • Trust, not rules. It’s always refreshing to read about a place that wants to treat employees as adults.Our policy for travel, entertainment, gifts, and other expenses is 5 words long: “Act in Netflix’s Best Interest.” We also don’t have a clothing policy, but no one has come to work naked; you don’t need policies for everything’.

The Questionable:

In the original I called out several problematic ideas. Most of them are still here, but refined and recast in this new edition.

  • What is Integrity? Their answer is curiously narrow. ‘In describing integrity we say, “You only say things about fellow employees you say to their face.’” This is more about transparency, where you are forthcoming and don’t hide useful information from people, than about integrity. Integrity is, perhaps, based on practicing what you preach and honoring shared commitments. They do list other attributes for integrity  (admit mistakes, treat people with respect) but the emphasis on who you say things to struck me as strange. It could be implied that if you don’t have the moxy to confront someone directly, perhaps about their offensive behavior in meetings, then you then shouldn’t tell your boss, HR, or anyone about it. I don’t think this is what they meant, but their odd emphasis makes it hard to know. They do a better job at completing the idea of integrity in how they describe courage: “You question actions inconsistent with our values.” But even questioning isn’t enough – one assumes they want people who act on their values and insist others do too.
  • Is the Keeper test a good one? Their philosophy for firing people is based on this question: “if someone on your team was thinking of leaving for another firm, would you try hard to keep them from leaving? Those that do not pass the keeper test are promptly and respectfully given a generous severance package.” But what if the reasons here are the managers fault? Or if they don’t like the employee for personal reasons? Or there is a breakdown in performance feedback? I admire the clarity of this test, but it can’t work on its own. You need a “Manager sanity test” that asks: “why do I feel this way about this employee? Have I told them I feel this way, discussed it and created a plan for improving the situation, before deciding not to keep them? Is there something I’m missing?”
  • Misunderstanding of great teams. “If you think of a professional soccer team, it is up to the coach to ensure that every player on the field is amazing at their position.” This is a shallow understanding of great teams. A great team has talent, but just as important is that the players work well together. The notion of a dream team fits the all-star fallacy: that simply having the most talented person at every position is enough to make a great team. Many all-star teams are terrible – playing at levels worse than mediocre teams in the same sport. The reason is all-star teams often have little chemistry and too much ego. A wise coach builds a team that is a mixture of both a) the best talent at each position, but also b) with a sense for how the players styles will work together, what roles they can play, and how their strengths and weaknesses balance. Great teams often have role players that are not the best at their position in the world, but fit better with the rest of the team, and the style the coach chooses for how the team will play, than a star would. And since the nature of projects in a fast paced organization like Netflix change often, it’s likely that on some projects an employee will be the star, and on others they’ll play a more supporting role. Both are important roles. It’s a reflection of a strong team culture to acknowledge these forces as healthy, that playing different kinds of roles creates opportunities to learn, rather than simply believing great talent alone makes for great teams.

What do you think of Netflix’s philosophy? What, if anything, would you adopt in your workplace if you could?

Read my full notes on the original 2009 Netflix culture document here.

Does “think outside the box” help? Popular creativity cliches explained

While researching my new book The Dance of the Possible, I studied the history of some of the most misleading ideas that have been popularized about creative thinking. Similiar to the Myth of Epiphany and the other creative myths of innovation, these sayings are misleading despite their popularity.

1. Think outside the box: this famous saying has the illusion of being helpful, but it’s mostly useless. The implication is that you should challenge assumptions and test constraints, but anyone who says this phrase is betraying their own advice. If they were helping to solve the problem at hand they’d offer a specific idea, or solution, that qualified as “out of the box” thinking, rather than simply saying the phrase and demanding that someone else do it.

The phrase comes from the 9-dot puzzle that was used in a research study conducted by J.P. Guilford in the 1970s. The trick to the puzzle is to ignore a common, but unstated,  constraint that puzzles like this usually have. The implication is that we invent false constraints all the time: and this is the one nugget of usefulness in the whole puzzle story. Challenging constraints is one approach to problem solving.

However it turns out that being told to think outside the box doesn’t actually help much. Recently different researchers replicated the Guilford study, but gave one group the advice to, more or less, ‘think outside the box’. The result? It didn’t significantly change the results. This shouldn’t be a surprise. Simply telling someone to do something hard doesn’t make it any easier. Our brains like to be efficient and assuming rules and constraints is what our brains are largely designed to do (some optical illusions demonstrate this well).

More broadly, logic puzzles like the 9-dot example rarely teach us very much. They often depend on a single trick or hidden assumption, which is a poor representation of the skills of problem solving and idea generation required to develop ideas in the real world. It’s far more useful as a leader to demonstrate good thinking, or create a healthy environment where interesting ideas are explored, than simply to demand other people engage in something simply because you say a phrase or post a sign. 

2. Left brain / Right brain. Dan Pink unfortunately popularized this notion in his popular, but problematic, book A Whole New Mind – despite the left/right brain notion being mostly a misunderstanding of science. It is true that we do have two hemispheres in our brains, but the way they interact is complex and many areas on both sides contribute to what we describe as creativity.

The left/right brain concept goes back many years, but it was neuroscientist Michael S. Gazzaniga’s research in the 1960s that demonstrated how there are different functional centers in the brain. He performed tests where one part of the brain, in a patient with a head injury, clearly didn’t understand or know what the other part of the brain was doing.  But the conclusion was not one of dominance – “you can’t be right brained any more than you can be right lunged or right kidneyed”.

People love easy, binary models for things and take pride in basing our primitive notions on the pretense of science. This is why people still say “he’s left brained” or “I’m a right brained person” despite how misguided those labels are. The Myers-Briggs test has similiar problems of being popular for how it satisfies our emotional needs to identify ourselves, more than anything to do with science or how personalities work.

Of course it is fair to label our personalities, as some people are more logical or free spirited than others, but it’s a mistake to confuse this with anything structural about how our brains work. As Jeffrey Anderson, a brain researcher, said: “It is certainly the case that some people have more methodical, logical cognitive styles, and others more uninhibited, spontaneous styles… this has nothing to do on any level with the different functions of the [brain’s] left and right hemisphere.”

3. Blue sky (constraint free) thinking. This phrase, most often used in product design and marketing, is a request to eliminate all constraints, and to work on a project free of any restrictions. The problem is that the benefits of working on a blue-sky project are often, but not always, more romance than reality. Constraints are very useful in finding new ideas. The request to ‘think blue sky’ can often lead people into the trap of ignoring seemingly smaller, or simpler ideas, that, if explored, could lead to the best solutions.

It can certainly be fun to think about solving bigger or more open problems. Imagining what you’d do with a 500% larger budget or an extra month of project schedule might yield an insight that transfers back to the actual constraints. But the desire to work ‘blue sky’ reflects a misunderstanding of how constraints often help, rather than hinder, the creative process.

A constraint, which can initially seem frustrating, is an important kind of information. It gives you something to start with, and work against in generating and testing ideas (and some research support this). For example, it’s much easier to write a poem that rhymes, than to write one in free verse.The structure of a rhyme provides information to work with and a structure, or shape, to try putting ideas into. Dr. Seuss famously wrote The Cat in The Hat based on a constraint from the publisher to use less than 250 different words.

There are many different kinds of constraints, and the way the constraint is defined can change how useful or not it is in solving a problem. Often it’s defining the problem thoughtfully, and working to examine and study the nuances of its constraints, that is where the real big insights are found. This is especially true when working on projects where you are designing something for other people.

Of course having too many constraints, or ones that conflict with each other, can render a problem unsolvable. Sometimes people are asked to do 1st rate work on a 3rd rate budget and it’d be unfair to tell them that if they were creative enough they could succeed.

What are some other popular, but misguided, bits of creative advice you’ve heard?  Leave a comment and I’ll investigate (Thanks to the folks on twitter who suggested some of the above)

What We Can Learn From The Eiffel Tower

[To celebrate the launch of my latest book, The Dance of the Possible ,  I’m sharing stories related to the book you can see the series here]

We take great works for granted. We forget, but the fate of even our most famous ideas and creations was far from certain at the time they were proposed. A powerful exercise anyone can do is to pick a famous creation and go back in history to the days before it was made. Only then can you see what the makers themselves truly experienced, and learn from the surprising challenges they faced and overcame. Here are some lessons we can all learn from the wonders of Eiffel’s Tower.


1. All Ideas Are Made From Other Ideas

Eiffel was inspired by the Latting Observatory, among other works. This tower, built in 1853, was taller than any other building in NYC, that is, until it burned down in 1856 (wood was still the primary construction material at the time, a fact Eiffel wanted to change). Eiffel also used engineering techniques found in nature to reduce weight and retain strength, essential concepts for constructing the tallest building in the world at the time. If you’re struggling to come up with good ideas, dig deeper into the surprising history of the major ideas in your own field. You’ll learn how they borrowed, reused and found inspiration from existing ideas.

latting tower

The design of the Eiffel tower was a wonderful combination of aesthetics and engineering (similiar in this regard to to the Brooklyn Bridge). But the plan for its style and construction evolved over time with contributions from at least four engineers. Maurice Koechlin and Émile Nouguier had the initial concept and drafted the first design (below), but it was rejected at first by Eiffel. They invited a third engineer, Stephen Sauvestre, who made several improvements, including the detailed latticework the tower would become famous for. Their revised design was finally accepted by Eiffel and proposed for the 1889 worlds fair (Exposition Universelle). Although the project bears his name, as only Eiffel had the reputation and finances to lead the project, the design of the tower had major contributions from others. 



2. Conviction moves ideas forward

There were over 700 competing design submissions for the world’s fair tower (including this one from Bourdais, a major rival). Eiffel was fortunate to win, but the victory led to more challenges.  The government surprised him by only offering $300k, a fraction of the what his proposed budget required. Eiffel chose to put in the remaining $1.3 million (5 million francs) himself. In return he asked for a 20 year lease and control over some of the pavilion area near the tower. This shrewd arrangement gave him the ability to advertise the other works his firm did, assuming of course that the tower itself was successful.

If your idea is turned down, what are you willing to put at stake as collateral (money or reputation) to make the project happen? If the person with the idea won’t stand behind it, why should they expect anyone else to?

Commitment to your own ideas is paramount. But also remember Franz Reichelt, as an example of conviction in an idea gone too far. He jumped from the Eiffel tower in 1912 to prove to the world that his parachute design worked, and fell to his death. You can even watch a film of his fatal attempt.

3. Even the best ideas meet resistance

Before the tower’s construction had begun, the French elite rejected its design. Soon 300 of the most well known artists and poets of Paris joined together as “The Committee of Three Hundred” to write an open letter to Eiffel and the city, demanding the project be stopped:

We, writers, painters, sculptors, architects and passionate devotees of the hitherto untouched beauty of Paris, protest with all our strength, with all our indignation in the name of slighted French taste, against the erection […] of this useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower…  imagine for a moment a giddy, ridiculous tower dominating Paris like a gigantic black smokestack, crushing under its barbaric bulk Notre Dame, the Tour Saint-Jacques, the Louvre, the Dome of les Invalides, the Arc de Triomphe, all of our humiliated monuments will disappear in this ghastly dream… we shall see stretching like a blot of ink the hateful shadow of the hateful column of bolted sheet metal.

Even our wisest and best people, by human nature, resist new ideas. We forget that some of the greatest ideas we’ve had as a species faced great doubt on their long road towards acceptance. This means anyone with big ideas needs to understand that the best ideas don’t always win. Merit is not enough. It’s wise to expect resistance, invest in skills of persuasion and try to learn from the feedback you hear before you dismiss it. The reason why Eiffel won are, in part, due to the relationships he built the society of civil engineers, and the investments he made in explaining to them why his design was superior to others.

4. Long term commitments make history

The original agreement for the tower was that it would be torn down in 20 years. Part of the criteria for the design competition was that the tower must be engineered in a fashion that would make it easy to take apart. But Eiffel made careful investments in an attempt to prove the long term value of the tower. He never wanted it simply to be a decorative delight. Instead he imagined it as both a symbolic and practical embodiment of the future of science and technology.

He financed experiments in wireless telegraphy and radio, including the installation of one of the first antennas in France. This antenna proved sufficiently useful that it justified keeping the tower intact instead of destroying it, allowing it to remain the tallest building in the world for nearly 40 years. Eiffel even had a science laboratory installed not long after opening day, where experiments in meteorology, astronomy and even aerodynamics were conducted. His commitment to the long term vision of his idea is a major part of why the building still stands today and is loved by so many people for so many different reasons.


Dance of the Possible: Launch Recap (w/ Photos)

About 80 friends and fans joined me on Wednesday night to celebrate the launch of The Dance of the Possible. A launch party is a good way for me to thank all the folks who’ve helped make my 14 year, 7 book, writing career possible, and share with them in launching something new.

The book is on-sale now in Kindle and paperback, and you can read a free chapter here.

Below is a recap of the fun (including the list of topics people want me to write about in the future). Thanks to everyone who helped on launch day all around the world, with your pre-orders, tweets and FB shares!

If you came to the party – photos from the booth can be found here.


One of my favorite things about launch parties is the wall of suggestions, where anyone can put an idea for something I should write about on a post-it note. There were 62 of them, some wonderful, some bizarre, and some I can’t begin to explain. Here they are:

  1. How to get paid to write
  2. Ramen!
  3. Life after Microsoft
  4. Trump: is a social experiment?
  5. Far right & Far left: why are they equally bad?
  6. “Claustrophobia”
  7. Gadzookery
  8. Being Passionate without being a fanatic
  9. 1972: Fuck Yes!
  10. Confirmation Bias in biz vs. life
  11. Being maimed
  12. Mushroom hunting
  13. How Pokemon GO is the most important cultural phenomenon of our time
  14. Tech success without being a jerk
  15. Chocolate Bacon
  16. Food culture change (Food trucks)
  17. Aliens
  18. The etymology of corporate buzzwords
  19. A layperson’s guide/book to roads/transit/transportation and how it works
  20. Why business is not politics
  21. NYC vs. Seattle
  22. Pancakes vs. Waffles
  23. Washington’s farewell address and the future of American politics
  24. Magic Mike XXL
  25. A mystery novel
  26. Encyclopedia of life-threatening UX Failures
  27. Post-fordian semiotics of post-it notes
  28. Immersion in middle america
  29. Self-confidence: getting, keeping, displaying
  30. The singularity
  31. The elusive meaning behind everything
  32. Dolphin milk
  33. AI
  34. What if our founding fathers were secretly aliens from another planet?
  35. Linguistics semiotics meaning
  36. Synergy!
  37. New Jersey
  38. Robot ethics
  39. Post-thinking
  40. Napster
  41. A brief history of time where you rap w/ Stephen Hawking
  42. Snakes on a plane
  43. Systems
  44. Myers-Briggs, yo.
  45. Planet of the Apes, but with the GOP
  46. 50 cent’s descending career & existentialist journey
  47. A “brief” history of the middle east
  48. If the people faked it till they made it so can you
  49. Why are people left handed?
  50. My life as an introverted improvisationalist
  51. Finding your inner-extrovert for introverts
  52. Anything as long as it’s in 1337
  53. Snuggies as formal attire
  54. Body language, +1
  55. Walt Disney’s cryo head
  56. The ones who never succeed
  57. The console wars
  58. Encyclopedia of life-threatening ideas
  59. Failure
  60. Weird things I have encountered in my travels.
  61. 3D Printing in PJs.
  62. When you are a tourist and arrested in Russia

The Dance of the Possible is on-sale now in kindle and paperback, and you can read a free chapter here. Hope you check it out! Thanks.

How Ignorance Drives Creativity

[In 22 days my latest book, The Dance of the Possible: the mostly honest completely irreverent guide to creativity, launches. I’ll be counting down the days until then with the story of an interesting idea, fact or story related to the book – you can see the series here]

“Knowledge is a big subject. Ignorance is bigger. And it is more interesting.” – Stuart Firestein

It should be no surprise that the forces involved in creative thinking can be counter-intuitive in nature. Often people use the framework of problem solving when talking about ideas, which is useful, but primarily logical. This makes the problem itself (“how can I build a better mousetrap?”) and the desire to solve the problem (“mice keep stealing all of my cheese”) provides the fuel to do the work.

But a more surprising way of thinking about ideas is that it’s ignorance, the lack of knowledge, that can also be the motivating force, or at least curiosity about that lack of knowledge. Curiosity is an interest in finding out what you don’t know and you can only be curious about something if you have ignorance. If you know everything, there is nothing to be curious about (an observation that helps explain why know-it-alls are so dull to be around. They know everything but are curious about nothing).

Science is often used as a metaphor for things we completely understand. The common saying “the art and science of…” uses the word science to represent formulas, facts and figures, things that are well understood. But how did we learn those formulas and facts? We forget there must have been a time when we were ignorant of those things, and someone, a scientist perhaps, was curious enough to try and figure them out.

In Stuart Firestein’s wonderfully compact book Ignorance: how it drives science, he explores the central role that ignorance, and curiosity, play in developing all of the knowledge that we take for granted today (He did a TED talk on this topic as well).

There are strong parallels in his book to any kind of creative work, such as projects where the goal is to do something new, solve an unsolved problem or to work on anything challenging at all. For many its a surprise to think of ignorance being central to science, much less creativity. But if science can be thought of in this way, then so can any field or profession, including the one you work in too.

Here are some favorite quotes from the book:

Questions are more relevant than answers. Questions are bigger than answers. One good question can give rise to several layers of answers, can inspire decades-long searches for solutions, can generate whole new fields of inquiry, and can prompt changes in entrenched thinking. Answers, on the other hand, often end the process.

When I sit down with colleagues over a beer at a meeting, we don’t go over the facts, we don’t talk about what’s known; we talk about what we’d like to figure out, about what needs to be done.

What if we cultivated ignorance instead of fearing it, what if we controlled neglect instead of feeling guilty about it, what if we understood the power of not knowing in a world dominated by information? As the first philosopher, Socrates, said, “I know one thing, that I know nothing.”

There is no surer way to screw up an experiment than to be certain of its outcome.

Here are some examples of what have turned out to be good questions in my class: Do you think things are unknowable in your field? What? What are the current technological limits in your work? Can you see solutions? Where are you currently stuck? How do you talk about what you don’t know? What was the main thrust of your last grant proposal? What will be the main thrust of your next grant proposal? Is there something you would like to work on knowing but can’t? Because of technical limitations? Money, manpower? What was the state of ignorance in your field 10, 15, or 25 years ago, and how has that changed? Are there data from other labs that don’t agree with yours? How often do you guess? Are you often surprised? When? Do things come undone? What questions are you generating? What ignorance are you generating?

Almost everyone believes that the tongue has regional sensitivities— sweet is sensed on the tip, bitter on the back, salt and sour on the sides. Pictures of “tongue maps” continue to appear not only in popular books on taste and cooking but in medical textbooks as well. The only problem is that it’s not true. The whole thing arose from the mistranslation of a German physiology textbook by a Professor D. P. Hanig,

So some things can never be known and, get this, it doesn’t matter. We cannot know the exact value of pi. That has little practical effect on doing geometry.

Thomas Huxley once bemoaned the great tragedy of science as the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.

Faraday, by the way, had no idea what electricity might be good for and responded to a question about the possible use of electromagnetic fields with the retort, “Of what use is a newborn baby?” This phrase he apparently borrowed from Benjamin Franklin, no less, who was the first to make the analogy in his response to someone asking him what good flight would ever be after witnessing the first demonstration of hot air balloons.

wrong. Great scientists, the pioneers that we admire, are not concerned with results but with the next questions. The eminent physicist Enrico Fermi told his students that an experiment that successfully proves a hypothesis is a measurement; one that doesn’t is a discovery. A discovery, an uncovering— of new ignorance.

George Box, noted that “All models are wrong, but some are useful.”

Inside the messy invention of the microwave oven

[In 23 days my latest book, The Dance of the Possible: the mostly honest completely irreverent guide to creativity, launches. I’ll be counting down the days until then with the story of an interesting idea, fact or story related to the book – you can see the series here]

In 1946 Dr. Percy Spencer of Raytheon Corporation was working on radar experiments with a magnetron (a device used to produce radio waves). When he noticed the candy bar in his shirt pocket had melted, he had every reason to throw it away, except one: he felt no heat. Odds are good that other people in radar laboratories around the world experienced similar globs of chocolate and other foodstuffs in their various pockets, and did nothing about them, other than to clean up the mess and get back to work. And given that the rational, logical parts of most intelligent people’s brains would tell them to do the same, getting rid of the offending savory bits and forgetting about it as soon as possible, it’s entirely odd that Spencer chose something different. Remember, he essentially found a bit of warm trash in his pocket, and chose to spend the rest of the day playing with melted cocoa beans, ignoring the millions of dollars of super cool top secret defense equipment surrounding him in his lab.

Just imagine Spencer in that moment: standing alone in a lab, expensive lights blinking on and off all around him, his eyes staring down at two chocolaty fingers, his Hershey stained clothes and lab coat crying out for care. If you walked past him at that instant you’d think for certain he was insane: a chocolate fingered loon. But although he didn’t know it yet, this chance encounter, the moment that redlined his curiosity well past his logical mind’s ability to follow, would lead him to the invention of the microwave oven. Curious about the source of heat, he put some popcorn kernels, and then an egg, by the nearest radar tube. The pop-corn popped, and the egg exploded. He quickly found support for more experiments, and spent the next ten years developing this chance encounter into one of the most used appliances in the world.

How else will new knowledge appear to us, if not as strange, bizarre or incomprehensible experiences? We forget that the common sense we hold dear today was, years or centuries ago, discovered by a curious mind willing to ignore the common sense of their own time. Any sane person would throw away his mistakes without a second thought, but an open mind might just stop and ask “how can I explain this?” before throwing it in the trash.

The microwave would take a long slow path to reaching consumers. The first commercially available designs in 1947 weighed over 700 lbs, were over 6 feet tall, and cost $5000 (about $40k today) . In 1971 only 1% of U.S. households had them. By 1986 it would rise to nearly 25%. Shown below is the Raytheon Mark V Microwave (1963) used mostly for commercial purposes. Note the four color button UI for different time settings.

[Excerpted, and revised, from Chapter 9 of The Myths of Innovation]


How the Post-it Note Was Invented

[In 27 days my latest book, The Dance of the Possible: the mostly honest completely irreverent guide to creativity, launches. I’ll be counting down the days until then with the story of an interesting idea, fact or story related to the book – you can see the series here]

In 1968 Spencer Silver, with a PhD in organic chemistry, worked for 3M as a senior chemist. Among 3M’s most popular products at the time were different kinds of adhesives, and Silver worked on a project to create a new kind of stronger glue. Unfortunately his prototype was a failure: the glue was weak, too weak to be useful for anything. It was more of a sticky substance than a bonding glue. (No one knew it yet, but this substance contained an important discovery called microspheres, which would lead to a patent years later).

For many years Silver tried to find uses for this substance, but despite many experiments couldn’t find any. Most people would have given up, but he kept trying.  In 1973 he had a new boss, Geoff Nicholson, and Spencer pitched him on the idea of using his creation on bulletin boards and other surfaces to make them sticky (eliminating the need for pushpins). But the potential seemed limited.

Another 3M employee named Art Fry saw a lecture by Silver where he talked about this curious substance he’d created and his inability to find uses for it. Fry sang in his church choir and would make notes on little pieces of paper over his sheet music when he practiced, but they often fell off or got lost.  Fry and Silver worked together to create new prototypes for a paper with the weak glue that could be put on almost any surface. Fry suggested that Spencer’s design had it backwards: instead of making a surface sticky, the glue should be on the paper itself.

“We have a saying at 3M,” Dr. Nicholson said. “Every great new product is killed at least three times by managers.” (source). It was because of the support of Nicholson, Fry’s boss Bob Molenda, and the persistence of Spencer and Fry themselves, that they had the time to develop improved prototypes. Two more scientists, Roger Merrill and Henry Courtney, worked on inventing a coating for the paper that would keep the glue attached to it, rather than it being left behind on objects after the note was removed. The yellow color was chosen for convenience, according to Nicholson: it was what the lab next door had available, so they used it.

Prototypes of their work were popular in the 3M office, enough so that in 1977 executives approved a test release of a “Press ‘n Peel” product, as it was first called. A test release was required, in part, because the manufacturing machines would have to be redesigned to make this new product in large quantities, which may have contributed to internal resistance to the product. It seemed a very expensive proposition to build new production machines for a product that didn’t have, in the opinion of company veterans, high odds of success.

The response to the test release wasn’t positive – few people were interested in the product. Nicholson and others felt that the product wasn’t marketed well in this release, and that free samples needed to be given away so people could understand the concept. Finally in 1978 a second product release took place in Boise, with free samples, and it was a success. Soon the product was launched to the world in 1980 and is now one of the most popular office supply products in history.


  • You can’t predict what uses an idea will have, even if the idea is yours (“We never throw an idea away because you never know when someone else may need it” – Art Fry)
  • Spencer had to pitch his idea many times, in lectures and to his bosses, to obtain the attention it deserved
  • It can take years to develop an idea or invention into a meaningful concept
  • An idea, even a great one, needs to overcome organizational resistance
  • Rarely is there a lone inventor – most often a multitude of contributors are involved


  • 12 years from idea to successful product
  • 1968 – Silver’s “failed” glue prototype
  • 1973 – Silver pitched new boss Nicholson on spray/bulletin board concept
  • 1977 – “Press ‘n Peel” memo pad product in limited release, mixed response
  • 1978 – Rereleased in Boise, ID (called the “Boise Blitz”) with free samples – strong response
  • 1980 – National release of Post-it notes


Why no one cared about the Wright brothers airplane

[In 28 days my latest book, The Dance of the Possible: the mostly honest completely irreverent guide to creativity, launches. I’ll be counting down the days until then with the story of an interesting idea, fact or story related to the book – you can see the series here]

When the Wright brothers landed from their famous flight at Kitty Hawk on December 1903 almost no one was there: just five people including a boy from the neighborhood. This is surprising to us in the present because in the nearly 114 years since that day airplanes have become central to modern life. But at the time airplanes were mostly a curiosity. Many other inventors over the centuries had attempted, and in some cases succeeded, at different variants of assisted and even powered flight. But the world shrugged at them all. “What problem does this solve?” was an excellent and largely unanswered question for these men and their machines.

Even the Wright brothers themselves weren’t entirely sure what powered flight could achieve. They passionately believed the invention would help end wars, as the power to see enemies from above would, in their thinking, eliminate the incentive to attack at all. Given the central role airplanes have played in modern warfare for decades this notion seems terribly naive, but inventors often are. The ability to create something doesn’t come with the ability to predict the future (although often often comes with enough hubris to make the inventor believe otherwise). Regardless, they faced a more pressing problem after their famous flight. Almost no one in the U.S. was interested in their creation for any purpose at all.

The Wright brothers had to go to Europe for a time to try and to sell their ideas, and it took many months before they found their first customers. They finally negotiated a contract with the U.S. government in 1907. It was the first military contract in aviation history. It took four years to get someone to pay for their airplane design.

What can we learn:

  • When you do something truly significant, the world may not understand or care (see Why The Best Idea Doesn’t Always Win). Selling an idea is often harder than coming up with one. (“Don’t worry about people stealing an idea. If it’s original, you will have to ram it down their throats.” – Howard Aiken)
  • It’s hard to predict how new ideas will be used, even for their inventors
  • Progress and change happens far slower than we think (and history helps remind us of this fact)
  • Asking “what problem does this solve?” is a powerful tool – but not having a clear answer does not mean the idea is useless (although it might be). It may just mean the use hasn’t been discovered yet. Working on new ideas is a dance with both the possible and the impossible.

The detailed invention story of the Wright brothers airplane is one of my favorites and among the most rewarding, as they patiently applied problem solving, research and invention approaches without any formal training. An inspiring, and well illustrated, read is How We Invented The Airplane by Orville Wright.




The Dance of the Possible

I’m excited to announce my next book. It’s called The Dance of the Possible.

This short, fast paced, irreverent guide to creativity is for everyone who wants better ideas and to finish projects they inspire. In 21 short chapters you’ll discover a fresh way to understand creative thinking, how ideas work, plus insights from decades of study on both how to be more productive and creative at the same time.

The book’s official launch day is Wed March 15th. Right now you can:

Early praise for The Dance of the Possible:

“You’ll find a lot to steal from this short, inspiring guide to being creative. Made me want to get up and make stuff!” – Austin Kleon, author of How To Steal Like An Artist

“A fun, funny, no-BS guide to finding new ideas and finishing them. Instantly useful.” — Ramez Naam, author of the Nexus Trilogy

“Concisely debunks all kinds of misconceptions about the creative process in a book that’s no-nonsense, fun, and inspiring.” — Mason Currey, author of Daily Rituals: How Artists Work

“This book will undoubtedly increase your abilities to invent, innovate, inspire, and make things that matter. It’s fun, it’s funny, and it’s phenomenally effective.” – Jane McGonigal, author of the New York Times bestsellers Reality is Broken and SuperBetter

“Highly recommended for anyone whose employment just might depend on the quality of their next idea.” – Todd Henry, author of The Accidental Creative

“Creativity is the nature of the mind. It is our birthright and our gift. The Dance of the Possible, beautifully, reminds us of how to open it.” – Sunni Brown, author of Gamestorming and The Doodle Revolution

“A fun read and a helpful book! Berkun demystifies creativity in work and play with nuggets of truth and common sense.”
Dan Boyarksi, Professor, School of Design, Carnegie Mellon University

“This new nugget of genius from Scott is the best thing I’ve read about creativity in a long time.” – Dan Roam, author of The Back of The Napkin and Draw To Win

“This short, irreverent-yet-authoritative book from Scott will set you on the right path to get inspired and take action on what you create.” – Chris Guillebeau, NYT bestselling author of The $100 Startup and host of Side Hustle School

“…makes the font of creativity something that is right at your door, offering you a cup and inviting you to drink every day.” – Andrew McMasters, Founder and Artistic Director, Jet City Improv

“A spirited and tangibly useful guide to actually getting art done — memorably clear, mercifully artspeak-free, and filled with pithy nuggets of real-world wisdom.”   — Ted Orland, co-author of Art & Fear.

“The best short book on creativity yet! Playful, irreverent, insightful, exciting! Full of good advice delivered by example rather than description. Get on with it, Berkun advises, and expeditiously gets you on your way!” – Bob Root-Bernstein, co-author of Sparks of Genius, Professor of Physiology, Michigan State University

“Decades of creative experience distilled into an efficient little book you can finish on a plane ride.” – Kirby Ferguson, filmmaker, Everything is a Remix

“…demystifies the creative process and makes it easily accessible to anyone. If you’re looking for the quickest route from stuck to creative spark, this is the book for you.” – Dave Gray, author of Liminal Thinking and The Connected Company

“Many ambitious young folks think all they need is a great idea – now I tell them what they need is to read The Dance of the Possible.” – David Edery, game designer and CEO of SpryFox Games

“Berkun brings practical bite-sized brilliance. My problem was every two pages I put it down, inspired to go make something.” – Steve Ball, Musician / Composer

“Scott is masterful at asking questions that turns us sideways, keeps us engaged with his light-hearted voice and clever format, while ironically inspiring us to jump up and DO. This book would’ve saved me almost two decades of bumping along, trying to figure this out for myself.” – Kyle Kesterson, Founder & Chief Storyteller – ‎Campfire

You can order the book on kindle or in paperback. And if you’re on my mailing list you’ll get a digital copy of the book for free before the rest of the world.

Orwell’s Animal Farm – Book Review

PrintI’ve read Orwell’s Animal Farm three times now: once was in high school when I wasn’t paying attention, another was in my 20s when I felt I owed it a second chance and then again this week as part of an inquiry into what’s happening in the world. While it’s well known that the context Orwell was thinking of for the story was the Russian revolution, many themes resonated with the America and world I find myself in today. I’m also embarrassed to admit that for all this time I never knew that Pink Floyd’s Animals album was largely inspired by Orwell’s Book. Live and learn.

The insight of the book, beyond the allegorical fun of comparing people to animals, is its encapsulation of the nature of power. In this regard the book reminded me of Lord of The Flies, where little by little the assumptions about human nature are stripped away and what is left is surprising, true and terrifying all at once. By using a fairy tale it’s easy to keep some distance from what happens in Animal farm, after all it’s just a bunch of animals, but at the same time any reader understands that this is an allegory, and it’s making commentary about us all along.

The biggest surprise in this reading of the book was the gentle the slope of moral decay. Somehow we imagine that big changes come in waves, as popular history talks of revolutions and wars as sudden, dramatic events. But in Animal Farm as each layer of morality is stripped away it happens so slowly and naturally that it’s comprehendible some wouldn’t notice it at all. Or could easily choose to ignore it out of denial, stupidity, indifference or (increasingly) fear. Unless there are opposing forces successfully working against denial and indifference, what hope could there be?

I found myself asking how can it be so easy to separate the spirit of the law from the letter of the law? But then I think of the history of religion and mass movements, or debates about the 2nd amendment (where smart people on all sides have entirely opposing interpretations of the same handful of words) and know there are all too familiar patterns, dark ones, at work here. Somehow in the world of Animal Farm there are always good reasons for bad things happening, since the only reasons you are allowed to hear are ones that come from those in power, and soon you are compelled to want to believe life isn’t so bad at all, as it’s less scary than the alternative.

Without giving the story away, here are some choice quotes from the book, which I hope you will read:

From the preface / appendix:

“revolutions only effect a radical improvement when the masses are alert and know how to chuck out their leaders as soon as the latter have done their job.”

“If one loves democracy, the argument runs, one must crush its enemies by no matter what means. And who are its enemies? It always appears that they are not only those who attack it openly and consciously, but those who ‘objectively’ endanger it by spreading mistaken doctrines. In other words, defending democracy involves destroying all independence of thought. This argument was used, for instance, to justify the Russian purges. The most ardent Russophile hardly believed that all of the victims were guilty of all the things they were accused of: but by holding heretical opinions they ‘objectively’ harmed the régime, and therefore it was quite right not only to massacre them but to discredit them by false accusations.”

From the text:

“Man is the only creature that consumes without producing. He does not give milk, he does not lay eggs, he is too weak to pull the plough, he cannot run fast enough to catch rabbits. Yet he is lord of all the animals. He sets them to work, he gives back to them the bare minimum that will prevent them from starving, and the rest he keeps for himself.”


  • Whatever goes upon two legs is an enemy.
  • Whatever goes upon four legs, or has wings, is a friend.
  • No animal shall wear clothes.
  • No animal shall sleep in a bed.
  • No animal shall drink alcohol.
  • No animal shall kill any other animal.
  • All animals are equal.”

“A bird’s wing, comrades,’ he said, ‘is an organ of propulsion and not of manipulation. It should therefore be regarded as a leg. The distinguishing mark of Man is the hand, the instrument with which he does all his mischief.”

“The animals formed themselves into two factions under the slogans, ‘Vote for Snowball and the three-day week’ and ‘Vote for Napoleon and the full manger.’ Benjamin was the only animal who did not side with either faction. He refused to believe either that food would become more plentiful or that the windmill would save work. Windmill or no windmill, he said, life would go on as it had always gone on— that is, badly.”

“and it became necessary to elect a President. There was only one candidate.”



Hidden Insight and The Third Donkey

There is a viral video making the rounds of several donkeys at an animal sanctuary trying to work their way out of a pen. Most people, including a writer at the Huffington Post, focus on the superior problem solving skills of the third donkey, named Oreste, who took a novel approach to finding his way out. Unlike Pedro and Domenico who choose to jump, he finds a more creative solution.

But there are three common mistakes of thinking about problem solving made here. Yes, I know it’s a cute video and it’s daft to read much into them. However these traps are common in daily life and how we think about problems and solutions.

  1. Insight is defined as the capacity to discern the true nature of a situation. And we presume Oreste is the most insightful. But he benefited from the information gleaned by watching the first two donkeys (Pedro and Domenico). He was able to observe, and smell, the choices the other donkeys made. At first he tries to copy what they did, but then decides, for some reason, to do something different. But if he didn’t have the data he gleaned from the other donkeys he might have simply done what they did. Oreste appears to take the most time to study before he acts than any other donkey. This suggests more data + more time often leads to better solutions.  
  2. We ignore the behavior of the fourth and last donkey. He doesn’t even get mentioned in the sanctuary’s own report of the event. But he might be the wisest of all. By doing the least work, he enjoyed the best outcome of all three previous donkeys at no expense of effort or possible embarrassment. There is an evolutionary advantage in being cautious. Most of the time in life we are more like the fourth donkey than any of the others. We are evolutionarily motivated to wait and observe, conversing calories, until we’re forced to make choices or good choices become obvious.
  3. The first donkey to leave gets no credit either. Arguably it’s Pedro who is the leader here, making the choice to be the first to leave. He takes the greatest initiative in deciding on this goal and acting on it by himself. But we are easily distracted away from his brave act by the novelty of Oreste’s solution, even though the outcome for all of the donkeys (leaving the pen) is mostly the same.

Our minds are biased towards simple narratives. We instinctively focus on the moment when something interesting happens, ignoring the sequence of events that led to that moment, and often ignoring the more interesting observations of what happens after the obviously interesting moment occurs.

There is an endless debate of strategy about whether it’s best to be the first with an idea, or to follow behind as a “free rider” and take advantage of the costs the first mover had to spend. There is no simple answer to this question of strategy, just as there is no single simple lesson to learn from watching donkeys escape from a pen.

2016 Post-Election Sanity Guide

For three weeks I worked hard to put the 2016 election in some kind of context. I read selections from history. I worked through all the commentary. I even went back and read some of the Constitution.

The result is this carefully researched 10 minute read that explains what happened, what it means and what you can do if you are concerned about the impact of a Trump presidency.


Eight lessons from Nazi Propaganda

On my way through Austin, Texas last week I had a free afternoon and on a whim went to the Bullock museum of Texas History. To my surprise there was an entire exhibition about Nazi Propaganda, called State of Deception. It seemed timely somehow, so I bought a ticket and stepped inside.

Here is what I learned, in eight points.


  1. Germany, as a democracy, was a world leader in the 1920s in media and mass communication technology. It had more newspapers (4700) than most nations in the world. It pioneered improvements to radio and television, the high-tech of the era. Its internationally acclaimed film industry ranked among the world’s largest. It was a technological and communication leader on the planet.
  2. After the great depression (1929), German citizens were divided between left and right. Millions found the simple messages of Nazi propaganda appealing in times of economic hardship and instability. They left mainstream parties to support Adolf Hitler.
  3. prop-minerThe Nazis’ platform did not initially scare many voters. While many voters weren’t necessarily at first attracted primarily to racist themes, they were willing to overlook them in hopes of economic promises. The Nazi’s carefully crafted different messages to different audiences, using nuance to signal to their deepest supporters without offending more moderate voters. This poster at right (“We’re for Adolf Hitler”) was aimed at unemployed coal miners, suggesting a vote for Hitler would bring their jobs back. At the same time explicitly racist posters were also being widely distributed.
  4. The term propaganda was originally a neutral term for the dissemination of information in favor of a cause. In the 1900s the term took on a negative meaning “representing the intentional dissemination of often false, but certainly compelling claims to support or justify political actions or ideologies” (wikipedia).
  5. Propaganda, by definition: plays on emotions over facts and mixes truths, half-truths and lies. Hitler, and his propaganda minister Goebbels, had a deep understanding of mass media. They masterfully offered an appealing message of national unity and a utopian future, while simultaneously targeting the brutal persecution of minorities and anyone who disagreed with, or competed against, their ambitions for power. Outsiders and minorities were an easy target to blame for national problems, or the failure to fix them.
  6. In 1933 a fire at the parliament, assumed to be a terrorist act, was used as an excuse to suspend the German Constitution. The fire was claimed to be the beginning of a communist revolution, allowing Hitler, who was only chairman at the time, to convince the president to use article 48 to suspend many elements of democratic process, giving the president near dictatorial powers. These powers were never revoked.
  7. Within months the Nazi regime destroyed the country’s free press. There were no longer alternatives to propaganda, making it harder to recognize. The regime closed opposition newspapers, forced Jewish-owned publishing companies to sell to non-Jews, and secretly took over established periodicals. By controlling the media there was no possibility of dissension. Questions could not be asked. Answers could not be heard. Citizens were not offered alternative views to consider nor the means to voice them. Power became unchecked. Challengers were increasingly easy to threaten, as news of their challenge, or imprisonment, would never be known.
  8. In less than six months, Germany’s democracy was destroyed. The government became a single party dictatorship. Rights such as freedoms of expression, press, and assembly were revoked. Police established concentration camps to imprison those deemed to be “enemies of the state” which included intellectuals, teachers, writers and artists, among those chosen simply because of their race or ethnicity.

An online version of the exhibit can be found here including a powerful archive of posters, signs and cartoons from the era as well as recommendations for supporting independent media in the US.


New Release: Updated Edition of The Ghost of My Father

I’m berkun-gomf-ebook-cover-092016proud to announce the new edition of The Ghost of My Father, with a new epilogue, is now on sale.

The book was first released October 2014, and a year later my father died. The new epilogue explains what happened between these two pivotal moments in my life. It shares what he thought of the book (he did read it and shared his opinion) and what happened between us before he passed away.

This new edition includes a list of resources and recommendations for readers who want to explore their own stories, advice on writing your own memoir, plus an annotated list of books on family dynamics and how to learn from our past.

Free on Kindle Wednesday 11/2 (tomorrow): for 24 hours the updated edition will be completely free. This is in part to give folks who already have the book a chance to grab the new edition without having to pay for the whole thing. Please help spread the word to friends and family you know would benefit from reading my story. Here’s a tweet/FB post you can copy:

“Bestselling author @berkun’s Ghost of My Father is free on #kindle tomorrow:”

Thanks again to everyone who helped support the first edition of the book.

Reviews from the first edition:

“A sobering, lucid memoir about the uncanny, precarious nature of family, masculinity and childhood.” -Kirkus Reviews

“Not only captivating, but also insightful… digs deep into many themes; family dynamics, forgiveness, grace, legacy, hope…” – Jen Moff, 

“Ghost of My Father is a poignant example of the value of positive role models. ” – Amy Mack, CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Puget Sound

“…A brutally honest memoir, well worth reading.” – David M. Allen M.D., Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry, University of Tennessee

“compelling… ideally suited to an audience that’s similarly concerned with the challenges of adulthood and parenthood in the 21st century.” – Kirkus Reviews

“Thought-provoking read, and highly recommended” – Thomas Duff

“When I finished it, I felt more human and less alone.” – Heather Bussing

“Finished in one intense sitting. Intensely personal & gripping” – Michael van Lohuizen

Get The Ghost of My Father updated edition.

Notes from Leading Design 2016

I gave the opening talk at the first Leading Design event in London, hosted by Clearleft. I spoke about the challenges of being a designer in the real world, and you can grab the slides here: Design vs. The World (PDF). I stayed for both days of the event and took notes for every session I went to (using a version of the Min/Max note technique).

You can also find:

Farrah Bostic, CX is the CEO’s Job

She romped through the history of business schools in the U.S. and noted that it was Selfridge who coined the irritating term “the customer is always right” (1909). She critiqued Taylorism (1911), and the management centric philosophy he had “Managers are inherently smarter than workers”. She also disputed the Ford quote about “if I asked people what they wanted. He didn’t invent the assembly line but did employee it successfully at scale.

Ford  did actually say “If there is any one secret to success it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angle as well as your own.”

She emphasized how Schumpeter’s concept of creative destruction is central to startup culture today:” we must harness change otherwise it will drown you”

Next she referenced Drucker who posed in 1954: “The purpose of a business is to create a customer, the business enterprise has two – basic functions: marketing and innovation.. all the rest are costs.”

Today it’s common for people to confuse principles with processes – for example you don’t “do lean” you “think Lean”.

Another customer value model is the Toyota production principles:

  • precisely specify value
  • identify the value stream for each product
  • make value flow without interruption
  • let customer pull value from producer
  • and pursue perfection

A disturbing (or exciting) fact is that Fortune 500 companies last shorter than ever. And yet CEOs get paid more than ever (and tenure is shorter, 6 years on average). Worker income stays the same.

Many famed books that claim theories to explain why some businesses last don’t hold up over time. She suggested we “Read books and then wait 5 years and see how well the theories hold up” – Good To Great is a good book, but many of the highlighted companies have not lasted.

A common mistake CEOs make is to spend more time talking to their best customers rather than their next customers. The American TV show Undercover boss is predicated on an essential truth: often the CEO has no idea what is going on in the company.

“FOMO leads to dalliances not marriages”

“Malcolm Gladwell effect: CEOs go to a party and hear about a book and get FOMO so they fall for the latest trends and are prone to hiring consultants who sell the latest trends and buzzwords (offered my Eric Reis)

“The data will tell us what to do” is a myth –as if a magic voice can speak to you off camera with the secret truth.


  • Uncover your riskiest assumption
  • Get to know your next customer
  • Commit to change (air cover and ground cover)
  • Make ruthless sacrifices (jettison old business and people who don’t fit the new vision)

Gail Swanson, How to present to decision makers

“Some ideas are so stupid that only intellectuals believe them” – George Orwell

We tend to believe “If we have the best rationale for why we made a design decision that will make it easy for decision makers” – but this doesn’t work very well

Design is change – FUD fear uncertainty and doubt. Designers enjoy it, it is our business but we have trouble empathizing with people who don’t.

Human Centered Change is a good way to think of what we do and Behavioral science can help us. But one presentation is never enough to create influence– it’s a series of points of communication in sequence that creates influence

Your Role

  • Rebel – I made something and the world should change
  • Organizer
  • Helper – facilitate discussion
  • Advocate – create a belief and partnership

When most designers show their work in presentations they are asking “Is this good” – this is non productive. You are asking someone to check your homework and give you a grade. It’s best to skip this and focus instead on “Is it right for you? For this situation/scenario?”. You are a professional and should stand behind your work.

How to you build an effective presentation:

  • Who is in the room?
  • What is their POV?
  • What background do they come from?
  • Are the business focused? Service? In-house?
  • What are their pressures?
  • What forces are acting upon them?
  • How are they rewarded?

A good framing question is to think about: We can get A to do B if they believe __________________ .

A narrative endows information with meaning. Giving data points doesn’t help decision making – it leaves interpretation to them. Part of our job is to provide the story and framework for interpreting data.

Lead a conversation about risk. “What is the risk if we are wrong?” – often it’s something that can be anticipated and made less scary.

The work to create the design is as valuable as the design itself. It helps to answer questions, test and validate assumptions.

Tactical language (vebal judo book)

  • Build common ground
  • Strip phrases: “I appreciate that… but” “I understand that concern but we can address it if we…”
  • Paraphrase – people rarely say what they mean. Ask clarifying questions.

What is the experience of you? Are you protecting yourself by being an expert? Are you pompous? Or are you connecting with them and do they see you as an ally?

Sarah B. Nelson, A Place of Our Own: Making Networks Where Design Thrives

“Why is it that some projects succeed and some fail, even when it’s the same group of people” – question she’s obsessed about . She learned a great deal by trial and error and making mistakes, as we all usually do.

IBM where she works is huge. But it’s easier to scale down than to scale up, and her lessons should be easy to apply. IBM 350k employees. Founded in 1905. Definitely Big and Old. She works on thinking about what makes great creative environments.

She asked people in design studios why they were great places to work and these were some of their answers:

  • You can work alone or together
  • Ideas and knowledge are shared
  • My imagination is nurtured
  • Everyone is pushing each other to be best selves
  • I can draw on the walls
  • People can collaborate regardless of their role

She asked the audience about the size of the teams and explained there are very different challenges at different sizes.

  • Team of 5 (Magic Number)
    • small team
    • information flows freely
    • you know what each other does and is working on
  • Team of 11 (size of family unit – enough people to spread work, but few enough to have deep relationships) subgroups
    • light processes
    • someone dedicated to process
    • still visible knowledge
  • Team of 20
    • emerging specializiation
  • Team of 35
    • systems starts to break down
    • suddenly everyone can’t be involved in all decisions
  • Team of 70
    • people who like small environments slip away
    • system breakdown
  • Team of 150
  • Dunbar number
  • GoreTex organizes company in business units of 150 people – buildings and parking lots only hold 150 people. When the parking lot gets full, they build another building. Merit based flat system.

The basic needs of creative environments are the same regardless of the size.

What to do?

  • Establish standards and tools
  • Provide paths, shortcuts and guides
  • Empower designers and leaders

Enabling conditions

  • Social environment – strong relationships, sense of belonging, diversity, empowered ownership, dependability
  • Physical environment – Flexibility, support visual thinking, enabling technology, abundant materials
  • Emotional environment – Stability and Safety, growth mindset, how safe is it to fail in public, is critique useful or ego driven, respect (attrition is caused here)
  • Intellectual environment – stretch goals, new ideas invited, cross-pollination, knowledge sharing

People + Practices + Places = Outcomes (

What can you do?

  • Establish standards and tools
  • Provide paths, shortcuts and guides
  • Empower designers and leaders

Andrea Mignolo, New on the Job: Your First 90 Days in a Design Leadership Role (slides)

As a design leader you are responsible for being a design ambasaor and to build design into the DNA of the company. She examined different leaders from Game of Thrones and asked the audience if we thought they were good or bad managers (Jon Snow / Jofree).

Authentic leadership – built on ethical foundations. Takes a lifetime of practice (principles aren’t necessarily easy to practice)

For four years she lead a 40 person guild in World of Warcraft. The other leaders had different styles and they wondered if love or fear were been ways to lead. And they experimented to see which work best – they found they call all work if the match your style.

Good design & good leadership share many traits. They are both: thoughtful , serve people, appropriate, empathy, intentional, vision, collaborate

“Designers can not design a solution to a disagreement” – Montiero

Harley Earl was a designer at GM –”My primary purpose for twenty eight year has been to length and lower…” His north star, or guiding idea, was to make GM cars more natural and oblong in shape.

What is your vision for design, what do you believe, what is your north star?

  • What is your company’s north star?
  • What different is it from yours?
  • How can you minimize the delta?
  • What did you learn in your interview?

When starting a new thing 30/60/90 days are arbitrary units of time for thinking about transitions to new things. Instead she offered a more useful one: 10/10/40/30.

The First 10/10/40/30 – Is the pregame. You are trying to gain clarity and information. Take your north star and apply it.

But apply it to the context of the “layer cake” of your world:

  • Board of directors
  • executive team
  • company
  • design team
  • colleagues
  • departments
  • public
  • parent

During pregame, connect early and socially with as many people as you can. Do sleuthing about your predecessors and what history there is that defines perception of your role

10/10/40/30 – Critical 10

Rigorous planning is the best prep for improvisation, Expect the plan not to work as planned, but to have developed it will help you deal will all of the situations you couldn’t have possibly planned for.

Think about how you want to be perceived and invest in it. She chose Optimisit, Open, Awesomely competent. Think about your origin story, which you will be asked about often. It helps shape how you are percieved. Good origin stories: why you do what you do, other organizations you worked in, and why you are excited for your new role.

Boatload of meetings. Take notes and have beginners mind. Write down jargon and abbreviations (and ask for clarification later). Look for allies – people who care about design. They may not use design language but there are giveaways. Dev who spends extra hour on details. Marketing who emphasized brand.

Talk to people in different departments to ask: how they see design, how design can help them.

10/10/40/30 – Making Moves

Formula for Trust: (Credibility + reliability + intimacy) / self-orientation

Earl’s design studio at GM. When he joined the company his department was called the beauty parlor and his team the pretty boys. As their reputation improved people wanted to visit the studio – it was a cool place to be. It made design visible (externalized) and helped establish credibility.

  • Foundations
  • Pre game
  • Critical 10
  • Making moves
  • To infinity and beyond

As a leader, it’s Education, inspiration and facilitation core skills.

  • Buy in
  • Credibility
  • Trust
  • Communication
  • Ah-ha moments (and ha ha moments)

Julia Whitney, Culture, culture, culture: tales from BBC UX&D

She shared a story of Rupert, an engineer, discovered a problem with a mixing board used for live production in the BBC. It was a difficult scramble but he dropped everything else to fix the problem and solved it before any listener noticed.

Later, In an offhand meeting, she mentioned an idea for consolidating how their clunky wifi worked. A few weeks later a set of wireframes came back with an overdesigned and misunderstood set of requirements. This reflected something about BBC engineering culture – they had the habit of dropping everything, respond to a crisis, and fix the problem quickly, but without clarifying or communicating well.

“[Culture is a] shared set of unconscious assumptions as it solves their problems ” – Edgar Shein

One way to better understand a culture is to ask: what counts as heroic behavior in this culture? That’s what helps explain Rupert’s behavior.

What levers does a leader have to influence culture? She offered two kinds.

  • Structural methods
  • Embedding mechanism (leadership behaviors)

BBC (where she used to work) is structured in genre silos (news, sports, etc.) UX was organized in the same way. Design became increasingly divorced from development. Churn escalated. When she took over the leadership of the group, she admits she brought her own cultural assumptions. Eventually they arrived at a functioning model called federated ? )

In 5 Dysfunctions of a Team, it’s explained that there are five layers that contributed to teams that function well:

  • Trust – I can give my true opinion with repercussions
  • Conflict –
  • Commitment –
  • Accountability –
  • Results –

Regarding conflict – she realized we were being way too nice to each other and were unwilling to disagree. This kept information off the table and kept commitment from being heartfelt. Our decisions were too wishy-washy. “Fuckmuttering: is the complaining you do outside of a meeting to vent your true feelings”

The invented the term Productive Ideological Conflict – useful conflict that is explored until a resolution is reached.

Conflict mining: agreeing to dig in to conflicts rather than avoid them.

Motto “We will not prioritize relief over resolution”

Shein also suggested that unless leaders can acknowledge their own vulnerabilities transformational learning can not take place.

Q: “What changes in your behavior does the culture you are trying to build require from you?”

Nathan Shedroff, Using the Waveline: Mapping Premium Value to the User Journey (a new tool for planning deeper customer experiences) (Slides)

There is a long history of tension between business and design, some of it is historic and some is self-inflicted.

As an example, Minimum Viable Product vs. Experience Prototype, represent two different world views and preferences. Business prefers optimization Designers prefer exploration.

Five kinds of value:

  • Financial (Business, Quantitative)
  • Functional (Business,Quantitative)
  • Emotional (Design, Qualitative)
  • Identity (Design, Qualitative)
  • Meaningful (Design Qualitative)

Value is always between transferred between two people: customer/company, supplier/vendor, etc. In order to exchange value you need to have two people in a relationship. Everyone, including businessmen, agree relationships matter but it is not accounted for in their models and theories. Therefore we are all in the relationship business. But we don’t have any relationship tools.

Qualitative value is most powerful (can override rational thinking in decision making, like buying cars), but harder to measure and mostly invisible in strategy and tatics. Market research is worse than worthless because many decision drivers are overlooked (qualitative).

The waveline was a representation of music created by Ernst Toch, who wrote The Shaping Forces of Music. It expresses the intensity of music as a series of curved lines, like a chart.

There are three elements Emotions, core meanings, and triggers. And combined define the intensity and value of experience over time.

The hero’s journey of Joseph Campbell can be expressed as a kind of waveline. It’s a pattern of emotion, meaning and triggers than has been established over time to reliably create satisfying experiences.

Leadership: the ability to clearly communicate a vision of the future others want to follow

Numbers are a great supporting act for a story, but it’s not the narrative.

See slides for examples (it was a highly crafted visual presentation)

Rochelle King, The itchy discomfort of trying to fit in

Japanese culture has a strong sense of aesthetics. It’s not just the appearance of the final product but the process it took to get there.

Wabi-sabi: imperfections can provide a kind of beauty. Growing into a leader is not easy, and we all feel burned and scarred along the way. It’s sometimes a result of the environments we’ve been in, and sometimes it’s self inflicted, but either way our experiences, good and bad, shape us into who we are.

Growing up as a Japanese American she learned Japanese traditions, but later in life learned she needed to adopt new ones. Japanese culture divides people into and in group and out group. The out group supports the in group. You can get so caught up in supporting others as a manager that you defeat your own goal and make it harder for the team to functional well, by sacrificing too much.

The nail that stands up gets hammered down – Japanese proverb

There are parallels between being a minority and being a designer in the tech world:

  • How often have you felt like the only person of your kind in a room?
  • How often have you felt that your background made you different than those you work with?

I’ve rarely seen people sustain at being successful when they try too hard to be something they are not. But this doesn’t mean to not evolve – you need to start by knowing yourself and then evolving from that source.

She admitted she relapses all the time. A definition of internet fame is how many followers do you have? How many articles are written about you? She admits that she posts sometimes, but not consistently and she’s not good at it. But things like building a team or solving a problem are natural and matter more.

Part of being a leader is being able to act as a bridge to the rest of the company (or to translate).

Tower builders vs. mountain builders. Towers are taller and easier to notice, but mountains are more stable and harder to move. (attributed to John Maeda)

Leadership isn’t always tied to your discipline, it can be your skills as a human and they can be applied anywhere or to anyone.

She shared stories about her recent experience at Spotify, in contrast to her experience at Netflix. Consensus driven culture can be great: when she asked for design to be included they said great. But it’s frustrating when a decision is best made by design (or any role) it’s hard to get the power to make it.

The language of the company was Guilds, tribes and squads, was initially rejected by her, and she thinks had she adopted it sooner it would have helped. But you can only assimilate for so long before you need to find a way to stand out. Design is a different perspective than marketing or tech roles. Fitting in will only get you, and the company, so far. Knowing when to pull the trigger is tricky – she’s never been early enough. There’s no formula but knowing this point will come and being proactive is helpful.

James Higa was sent by Apple to build their office in Japan. He had a hard time recruiting. The expectation is when you take a career in a company you will stay there for your life. Many were skeptical of joining a US company with a piece of fruit as its logo. He had to meet with some of their parents to convince them. He was more successful recruiting women than men – they had less career pressure. Sometimes being an outsider provides strength as you are free from the pressures that insiders have.

Leadership is not an end-state, but a journey.

Mike Davidson, Former VP of Design at Twitter

[Andy Hunt interviewed Mike for the entire session].

Mike worked as VP of Design at Twitter from 2012 to 2016.

He explained how once you get to a certain level the design teams often need to break apart and be distributed across the company. But you can balance the tradeoff of being embedded vs. centralized if you’re smart. At Twitter they kept a central design office that they used for larger meetings and critiques so there was a familiar home base, but most designers spent the balance of their times with their teams.

The team was 15 peopple when he was hired and grew to 100 before he left. People are surprised the design team was so large, but there’s more than one just one twitter. Each platform, each phone device, plus tweetdeck, fabric (?), the advertising UI – many more pieces than people think.

The subject of diversity and inclusion was new for him at Twitter – the team was 80% male when he started, but when he got to 100 people it was nearly 50/50. They did it not by data, but by listening to the stories of the female members of the team of what their experience is like. Some of it was about twitter, some about tech and some about the world.

One story Mike shared was a woman who explained she’d often go for weeks and never see another woman in a meeting. “Most of the meetings I’m in it’s me, 10 engineers and a PM”, all male dominated roles. She explained that all it takes is one other woman in the room for me to feel much more comfortable, and to be able to look at each other and know “that is only something a dumb white man would say”. That story had more influence on understanding on what was wrong, and what the goal was than any of the data they had.

The people who deserve credit are the women who told these stories, did the research. All Mike claims credit for is providing the space for this kind of discussion to start, and using his position to make different kinds of hiring decisions in the future.

He offered that diversity is the right thing to do socially, but there is a business case for it too. One of the biggest challenges is getting a view of your potential audience and if you’re just a bunch of white men in a room in San Francisco you’re not going to get it right.

He talked about one design problem where diversity helped find a solution. Permission gates: this is when an app wants get location information from a user’s phone. The stupid thing is to use the system iOS because you can only do it once. But a permission gate is your own UI, which you can put up as many times as you like, and if approved you go through.

One design idea they had was a tent as the icon for the permission dialog. But an Indian woman explained that this icon would make no sense in India. They could have discovered this through research later, but they got that insight fast and for free.

Young designers start off very cocky and think they can design anything for anyone and don’t need any data. It’s ok if you have young green people provided you manage them to do the research and use it to debunk the hubris that you see in confident young designers. You don’t use research slide decks, you use video showing people struggling with their design and it will quickly disavow them of their assumptions.

He thought of his team as a family and this helped with retention. “We don’t hire assholes, we don’t hire delicate geniuses.” He wanted his team to be a rock, a reliable culture, even if the larger company was having trouble. They’d organize out of work social events – being an executive is a bit like being a cruise ship director at times, and that means you have to organize parties and events.

When asked about what he might do next, he said “I find that unplugging is therapeutic and healthy. The experiences I want to design help people pull away and be in the real world”

Jeffrey Veen, Crafting a Creative Culture

We can train ourselves as leaders and teams which set of responses we will have to events.

Equanimity – state of emotional stability especially in difficult situations. Grace under pressure.

Story: Jeff was the CEO of Typekit, a font service for CSS, that is host based. He woke up one morning before his alarm, and discovered a lot of activity on the company slack channel. He looked at the server stats and discovered something was very wrong. Something was broken with how fonts were being deployed.

They had known a major announcement was coming on Dec 19th that would spike their traffic. They had 3 days to plan how to handle it. They tried to manage it like a rocket launch. They decided to remove all of the secondary issues, partnerships and business issues, and let engineers focus purely on the launch.

They broke down the problem into small pieces and discovered that the server that redistributes their fonts was problematic, and decided they could make their own. They once had this in the project plan to do it over 8 weeks, but it had never been done – so they decided to do it on Dec 18th. Plan was to make it in a simple efficient way, and they succeed and launched it that day.

“On Wednesday we decided there was no possible way to get this project done before the end of January. We launched it this afternoon.” – @ph

Three lessons:

  1. Everything breaks – every thing is connected to the rest of the world. A storm can hit another part of the world and damage a system that you didn’t realize you depended on.
  2. Everything contributes to the user experience
  3. Teams can thrive with equanimity

Google’s Project Aristotle – tried to answer: what makes a good team? The analytical approach they took initially revealed no insights. But with a psychological approach they

A key criteria was that people had “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up”

“Some people believe tension is a good creative tool. I’m not one of those people. I’m not trying to control them, I’m looking to amplify whatever it is about them I find compel. I keep the environment relaxed but focused.” – Steven Soderberg

Jeff saw part of his role was to build a sense of great taste on his team and across the company:

  • More exposure to great work = better design vocabulary
  • A diverse team leads to better product insights

Three Meetings

  • Product Review (not Design review)
    • Anyone could come
    • Not a forum for expressing opinions
    • Working sessions for group problem solving that is divergent or convergent
    • Bad: I don’t like blue Better: Why is that blue? Great: Is color important here?
  • Postmortem
    • First response when things go wrong is to find the vilian and punish them (Fundamental Attribution Error)
    • Sakichi Toyoda – The Five Whys. It’s a way of letting all employees know they are safe to do their work.
  • Group Chat
    • Act distributed even if you are not
    • Communication compression – chat models encourage brevity and reduces hierarchy effects
    • Ambient accountability – things that people do can be passively visibly and celebrated with micro-appreciations (e.g. animated gifs, etc.)

He closed with the suggestion we find work that excites us and people we trust and to go make great things.

Ryan Singer, Basecamp

When you get power, will you inherit the same BS patterns that frustrated you? He offered a simple, straightforward way to manage design and development work, based on what Basecamp does.

A typical project in most organizations:

  • Kickoff
  • Intermediate deadlines (sprints, etc.)
  • Big Deadline

Their approach

Example: static site with livestreaming of how basecamp works. Imagining a dynamic element that advertises these events, but build it without a CMS. And need a way to send reminders to people for when these events will happen.

Two phases

  • Concept
  • Shipping mode – begin date and end date. No intermediate milestones. Longest is six weeks.

He offered the metaphor of butchering an animal.

Animals have an inherent anatomy. You can separate parts naturally. The goal during shipping mode is to look at the concepts for the inherent anatomy of the design. A project anatomy. Each piece has orthogonal scope – they can be thought of and worked on independently.


For each piece or widget they then inventory all of the parts they need to build.


They think of it as an inverted pyramid model – the most important work is done first. They order the pieces and work on them in priority order. They mark items they can launch/ship without (with a ~).

They can then work by managing scope. If things take longer they simply don’t do as many of them. When the time box runs out, they reach the once mythical state they call “Done”.

Duncan Lamb, Let’s make something good 

He called out on how events like this tend to say the same things – like a Bernie Sanders rally with better fashion sense.

LEAN biases towards cheap and fast at the expense of good. If people are not emotionally engaged in your product or service they are not enganged

(From Paul Dolin Designing Happiness) Two spectrums – Pointlessness-Purpose / Pleasure-Pain

The ease of measurement bias:

  1. We lean towards the things we can more easily measure. Emotion, joy and 1happiness are very hard to measure.
  1. We confuse the word viable with the word feasible. When we make MVPs we’re often making MFP.
  1. We bias towards quantity not quality – we are fickle creatures and we like new toys. Before you know it our code base, brand and product are a mess.. Like MacGyver, we are pragmatic people. If it works, then it’s good. When you found a company you hire engineers because they can build things – designers just talk about building things (joke).

What is good? How good is good enough? Trio: Does the job, built right and aesthetics (he offered the way a car door feels when you close it, and how it influences purchasing choices, an example of the potency for aesthetics)

How do you create a culture where people care? Designers get this intuitively but the challenge is to get everyone else to see it that way. Three approaches:

  • Despotic founder runs around yelling and screaming and firing people
  • When you are competing against a better design
  • People genuinely care and take pride in design

Braden Kowitz, Fostering Design Culture

We are influenced by the behavior of others around us (elevator video).

Three patterns he has seen work:

  1. Faith in Quality – data is useful, but there is always unmeasurable value. The dark matter of value. We are sure it exists but we can’t see how it interacts with what we can measure. Designers need to be advocates for the unmeasurable and one way to do this is through critique.
  2. Hold Design Accountable – Designs often get distracted by design – we see well ‘designed’ products that fail (which should mean that the design was flawed). Designers contribute Surface value, User Value and Business Value. Commanders Intent – Battlefields are chaos. As a leader we have to do more than give orders, but express the goal the order is intended to satisfy.
  3. Design is Everyone’s Job – Software quality used to be a role, but isolating it  sent the wrong message to rest of organization. Now engineers write unit tests, a software quality technique. Exposure to customers is one way to help make design everyone’s job (over 30mins per week per employee). Designers have to accept that good ideas can come from anywhere.

Jason Mesut, Building your A Team

  • Frame –  scope and position the team and roles
  • Hire –  attract asses fit of people
  • Fire
  • Grow – develop individuals, scale team. Increase presence
  • Adapt –  to changing needs and the team dynamics
  • Exit get out to let others grow and shape things

How you manage these changes often. You have to reframe often. Framing and Hiring might be the most important and have the biggest impact.

Framing: understanding the position your is and where it needs to be.


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Notes from Digital PM Summit 2016

I’m the I was the closing speaker today yesterday at Digital PM Summit in San Antonio, TX, and I’ll be taking notes (or in fancy terms, liveblogging) for every session that I sit in until it’s my turn. I’ll be following the basic rules of Min/Max note taking and will update this post as the day goes on. It’s the first PM event I’ve been to in years – brings back many memories from my first career.

Please forgive typos, I’ll get to them when I can. Here we go!

1. Brett Harned – Army of Awesome (slides)

Brett, one of the organizers of PM Summit, asked the audience how many people became Project Managers / Producers on purpose, vs. how many fell into it accidentally, and most of the room raised their hands as accidental! (He joked with a slide that said “You are not an accident” :) This isn’t a surprise as often the role evolves as a project or organization gets larger.

It’s also a related observation that most people don’t know what a project manager does, particularly digital project managers. Once during a trip he was stopped by a UK immigration officer who seemed baffled by his job title and asked: “what kind of projects do you manage then?” He shared a list of quotes from colleages who he asked to explain what he did for a living:

  • “As far as I can tell project managers do nothing, but if they stopped I’m pretty sure everything would fall apart” – Paul Boag
  • “You help teas organize their work” – Brett’s Mom
  • “Project management is like sweeping up after the elephants, only less glamorous” – @zeldman #dpm2016

He shared how the History of Project Management goes back at least 4000 years, and that there’s a long history of teams of people making difficult things. But that digital project managers have yet to be entered into that history in a meaningful way, and part of what he’d like to see is greater recognition for the contributions digital project managers make.

7 DPM (Digital Project Manager) Principles: The balance of his talk was an exploration of 7 principles about leading teams and projects.

  1. Chaos Junkies – we thrive on problems because we know we can solve them. We break processes to make new ones. We make our own templates. We managed with our minds, not our tools.
  2. Multilingual communicators – listen and take cues from our team and clients.
  3. Loveable hardasses – reputation for being firm but wise and well intentioned.
  4. Consumate learners and teachers – that teaching teammates helps the project, the organization and the pm
  5. Laser focused
  6. Honest Always – cultivate a reputation for straight talk
  7. Pathfinders – do more than take care of budget and timeline

His final question for the audience was: where will you take us? Which principles resonate the most?

2. Natalie Warnert – Show Me the MVP!

The core of her talk was about the concept of MVP, or Minimum Viable Product, and how to apply it to projects. She referenced Eric Reis’ book, The Lean Startup, and asked who had read the book:  I was surprised how few hands went up. Perhaps I’ve been to too many start up events the last few years. I had a hard time following the thread of her talk – she referenced many models and frameworks but it was tough to find salience to pm situations, or connections to each other.

She offered four goals or objectives:

  • Building just enough to learn
  • Learning not optimizing
  • Find a plan that works before running out of resources
  • Provide enough value to justify charging

She mentioned loop models, were you have a cycle of behaviors you repeat, such as: Think -> Make -> Check. Briefly she touched on Lean UX, and  how customers must be involved as part of that check process – “Customers don’t care about your solution, they care about their problem”.

Next she talked about metrics, and offered this quote: “A startup can only focus on one metric and ignore everything else” – Noah Kagan. I didn’t agree with this, as it sounded more more like hyperbole than sanity – plenty of successful startups have focused on multiple metrics, or at least prioritized them.

She offered “Pirate” metrics as good choices for what the primary metric should be:

  • Acquisition
  • Activation
  • Retention
  • Revenue
  • Referral

Regarding building software, she explained the Build Model:

  • There are 3 desirable criteria, but you rarely can do all three
  • Build right thing
  • Build it fast
  • Build thing right
  • (reminds me of the PM Triangle – “you can have fast, cheap or good: pick two”)

Which she compared to the Learning Model (Learning, Speed, Focus), but I didn’t quite understand how they related to each other.

Lastly she provided this outline, in reference to a project she managed:

  • Reduce scope
  • shorten time to feedback
  • get out of the deliverables business
  • learn from customer behavior

3. Elizabeth Harin, How Can I Help You Now That It’s Too Late?

She explained that her background is different than most of the audience, but that the importance of feedback is shared: feedback should make it easier for (clinicians) to do their job.

A common mistake in getting feedback is asking for it only when it’s too late, AFTER, the customer has experienced what you made for them. She gave the example of how a waiter at a good restaurant will check in on how you are doing DURING the meal, creating the possibility for them to fix a problem before it’s too late. But projects rarely do this. All feedback is too late.

A goal she has used is to make it possible.. “For all our customers to continually rate the services we provide as good, very good or excellent” and that part of this should be that the customer defines what good looks like (which is important since it forces you to confirm your assumptions about what customers actually want are valid)

  • Tip #1: Measure what’s important to the customer
  • Tip #2: Track your scores to show your impact
  • Tip #3: Make feedback little and often
  • Tip #4: Don’t expect credit for hygiene factors (things people expect you to do anyway)
  • Tip #5: Satisfied Customers Make Good Allies


  1. Get buy-in – does your team support idea of continuous customer feedback?
  2. Set & Spread the vision – “want majority of customers to score us good, very good or excellent”
  3. Decide who the customer is – it’s often not the most senior or visible person (and segment the customer pool if needed).
  4. Define your scoring mechanism
  5. Organize for success
  6. Align your partners
  7. Launch
  8. Do the work (she joked at once getting the feedback “having a change management process is onerous, so… we shouldn’t have one”)

She closed with the following quote, pointing out how we call use the right words, but the impact is only felt through our behavior.

“people may hear your words but they feel your attitude” – John C. Maxwell

4. Aaron Irizarry, Hold Fast: Managing Design Teams When Projects Go Sideways

The number one thing that will screw up a project: people. Feature and scope creep only happens because someone is not communicating well with others.

Projects are complex for many reasons:

  • How departments are defined
  • Internal politics
  • External politics (client)
  • Team distribution by location
  • The understanding of the role of designers
  • Limited budget lofty goals

The most important thing is to avoid being blindsided. If you see problems coming you can prepare, but if you are surprised by something you did not anticipate the damage will be far worse. Almost every problem can be traced back to communication issues and how people relate to each other.

  • When you take responsibility for your mistakes, other teams will respond in kind.
  • Creative Friction is a healthy fuel if managed well. (See Creative abrasion)
  • Admit when you don’t have an answer. There is no shame in not knowing something and it’s far better to put that ignorance out in the open where it can be resolved, rather than hidden (where it will fester)
  • “I design how my team designs” (as lead)
  • Work to understand root causes of difficult situations.

Be prepared to ditch your process if it’s not working. It’s the ends that matter not the means.

‘Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face’ – Mike Tyson

You don’t want to be inventing a new plan when you are in the middle of chaos. Have a backup plan. And a backup plan for your backup plan.

The needed solution might not be the ideal solution. There is what’s ideal and there is what’s real.

  • No two projects are alike
  • Do everything you can to avoid blindspots

5. Tera Simon, How to Eat an Elephant (Or Tackle Most Any Big, Huge, Enormous Project) (slides)

First time she worked on a large project she was excited to see a budget so big. The project was to make a video game to teach accounting to high school students. But then she realized her  team was small and the expectations the client had were demanding. This led to a kind of crisis: Why me? Why did I want to be in this situation? (In the end they did finish the project on time, but over budget). Over many projects she’s found good answers to this question.

PM is untangling the most complex project and making it tangible.

Essential skills for managing (complex) projects

  1. Adaption
  2. Collaboration
  3. Communication
  4. Expertise
  5. Leadership – cheerleader and bulldozer at same time. Takes time and practice to learn.
  6. Strategic

Difficulty != Complexity: just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean it’s complex. Factors that make a project complex:

  • Many teams and stakeholders
  • Numerous moving parts
  • Project timeline
  • Budget / restraints

When eating an elephant, take one bite at a time.

  • Continuously clarify your goals. Goals change and you have to make sure that you are verifying they’ve stayed the same (and reminded your client of them).
  • Create more visibility – last thing you want is a team member who is working on something that isn’t needed anymore. She explained process maps – a visual outline for all of the roles people need to play, at the firm and at the client. They’d have the client review them, on a huge sheet of paper, answering questions and clarifying.
  • Be flexible and willing to adapt – As PMs it’s natural to tend to want to control everything, but flexibility (bend not break) can be a strength not a weakness.
  • Pay attention to the calm before the storm – complex projects are like dating. When you start a project, everyone is excited. But soon interest fades, and slowly problems arise, often creeping up on you and easy to overlook.

Scope Creep causes

  • Every time you say yes to one more edit, you’re inviting the next one. You must get comfortable saying no, not always but often.
  • Interference from the client
  • Incomplete scope
  • Poor change control
  • Miscommunication

Effort Creep causes

  • Overly optimistic estimates
  • Doing more work without added scope
  • Lack of skills – “pleasure of working with” a junior person

Hope Creep

  • Team falsely reports they are on track, which you report to client
  • Hardest to identify
  • Hides until the last moment
  • As much fear as PMs have, designers and developers have it too, but for different reasons
  • Have a “NO SURPRISE” rule – it’s a two way pact to make sure you don’t set up the other person for failure

Feature Creep causes

  • Also known as gold-plating
  • Over-delivery on the scope
  • adding unnecessary features

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place” – George Bernard Shaw

Swoop and Poop

  • Someone powerful flies in, late in the project, and dumps all over it
  • You can avoid this by having a list of stakeholders who have the authority to change things late (no surprises)

6. Carson Pierce, Your Brain Hates Project Management

“The brain is fundamentally a lazy piece of meat” – Gregory Berns

Our brains are not as impressive as we think they are. We are not designed to handle the amount of information and the cognitive tasks we ask. It’s like taking the first computer you ever owned and trying to use it today to use web.

“It’s not information overload, it’s filter failure” – Clay Shirky

“My wife probably tells me that I never listen” – Rodney Lacroix

He showed an example of awareness bias (watch this video and try to count how many times the white team passes the ball). It’s easy to miss something you’re not looking for. As a side note, ADHD means it’s hard to focus on one thing.  While someone with ADHD are more likely to see everything (in the video), but also more likely to get the count wrong.

Layering: two relatively simply things using different parts of the brain (singing while driving, one is physical one is mental).

However two mental tasks at same time: does not work well. Instead of doing them at the same time our brain switches back and forth (fast enough so we feel like we’re doing both, but we’re not).

“Multitasking is the ability to screw up everything simultaneously” -Jeremy Clarkson

He asked the room how many projects they manage at the same time: majority of the room was 6 or more.

General stats (reference?) on performance loss when trying to multitask:

  • 2x as long to finish a single task
  • 50% more errors
  • 40% drop in productivity
  • willpower drops
  • decision fatigue

He referenced a study of judges and how they granted parole 65% early in the day and drops until lunchtime, when it returns to a high level.

He was going to talk about procrastination, but then decided to get to it later.

  1. Rest – 7 hours of sleep (Most people who think they need less are probably wrong). Taking breaks is good for body and brain (see pomodoro technique).
  2. Eat – don’t eat bad things.
  3. Move – We work in a chair for 8 hours a day. We need blood flow, to stretch or joints, and our brain is part of our bodies after all.
  4. Plan – Avoid back to back meetings. Try for single tasking – where you are focused on one project at a time.
  5. Cheat – shortcuts, rules of thumb, heuristics – ways to make your brain more efficient.

Predictable Mistakes

He gave an example of the conjunction fallacy – is Linda more likely to be a banker, or a feminist bank teller:

“Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations. Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.”

He referenced killer clowns as an example of availability bias, a mental shortcut that relies on immediate examples that come to mind, and also probability neglect.

For PMs an important one is ambiguity aversion – where we will take a known thing, even if it doesn’t work well, over an unknown (known risk over unknown risks).

Another one is illusion of control – dice games where people believe they have an influence over the roll. Or when people yell at their televisions while watching sporting events, or even pushing the elevator button more than once.

Estimation is prone to many kinds of bias (the planning bias documents our tendency, even experts, to underestimate time, costs and more). We also suffer from anchoring bias – whatever first number we hear changes the answers we tend to consider (a factor in speed limits and prices). As a tip, whoever anchors a discussion can likely influence it.

Hofstadter’s law: it always take longer than you expect, even when take into account Hofstadter’s law.


We are wired with these limitations and it’s not entirely clear how consistently we can overcome them. But there are tactics that minimize their impact and frequency:

  • Slow down – speed amplifies mistakes/oversights
  • WBS It  (he suggested also using reference class forcasting for planning)
  • Go outside
  • Pre-mortem
  • Be Sad – our mood impacts our judgement. When happy we are overly optimistic. Consider watching a sad movie before doing tasks were skepticism is required.
  • Remember – “memory is fiction.. not just a replaying, but a re-writing” Daniel Levitin. Our memories don’t work as well as we think they do – snapshots, not the whole film, and our brain invents to fill in the gaps.



On The Quest For Fun

Last week I saw Ian Bogost speak at Town Hall Seattle about his new book, Play Anything: The Pleasure of Limits, the Uses of Boredom, and the Secret of Games. Of the many ideas he offered about how to think about fun, he shared three stories that stayed with me more than anything else he said.

  1.  One day at the mall while walking with his daughter he noticed how, because she was bored, she made up a game of not stepping on the cracks in the floor tiles. I took this story to suggest we have the power to make many ordinary experiences fun if we are motivated to frame them that way. I believe this is true. The key to his daughter’s success might be that she was motivated to create, which raises the question: if she was never bored, would she ever be motivated to try to learn how to make things fun for herself? There are many things in life we know we want, but finding the motivation to go get them is the challenge. It seems counter-intuitive to have to expend effort to have fun, but maybe there’s a truth here that we don’t want to admit?
  2. He criticized the notion popularized by Mary Poppins that “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down” as an empty promise, and that covering one large unpleasant thing with a thin layer of something pleasant is a ruse and rarely works. It also dodges the question why isn’t the core of the experience made well on it’s own? He offered chocolate covered broccoli as another example – we’re fond of coating unpleasant things with tasty ones as a “solution”, but rarely is it as satisfying as simply making the central ingredient excellent (why not buy fresh broccoli and cook it lovingly so it tastes delicious itself?) I liked this thought, until I reconsidered his daughter’s choice: didn’t she cover over the boredom of the mall with the sugary distraction of a private game?
  3. He shared how he chose to use a push lawn-mower, which takes more time and is far more frustrating to use than powered ones. He didn’t complete the story (perhaps he does in his book) or how it connected to his daughter, or Mary Poppins, but it was enough to make me consider that fulfillment can be more powerful than fun. The pleasure we take in finishing a hard project might be greater than spending the same amount of time doing something that was ‘fun and easy’. Game designers know they must balance the level of difficulty in their creations, making it simple enough to enjoy but hard enough to challenge us and keep our interest. And this was where the idea of fun fractured for me: fun isn’t really the goal, it’s pleasure or satisfaction that we’re after which are deeper concepts.

In the end I’m left feeling there’s something shallow about the isolated quest for fun, which I admit I was on as I was attracted to the lecture. Looking back now, the very idea of going to a lecture about a book about fun seems like a very un-fun thing to do. The more time you spend thinking about fun, the less fun you’re probably having. It’s a common problem with  philosophers, who in all of their thinking lose the very thread they’re trying to follow (e.g. great thinkers on life and love who failed to ever get a date). Inquiry is useful for a time, but soon there are diminishing returns in abstractions.

If I tried to explain all of this to a college student half my age they’d think I was crazy, as most twenty year olds are surrounded by people and situations heavily oriented towards having fun: it’s not something they’d think you need to go out and find. And in truth it wasn’t a particularly fun crowd or an especially entertaining experience, but who in their right mind would expect either of those things AT A LECTURE? Perhaps there is something to learn from the fact that this is not where people who are good at having fun go on a Friday night in Seattle (Yes, it was a Friday night. In my defense I DID have much fun at dinner with friends before we went to Town Hall, so there!)

One problem is the quest for fun assumes that we have binary states of fun or un-fun, which is about as true as always being either happy or unhappy. Our emotions are more sophisticated and that’s what makes us interesting. We can be happy and laugh in reminiscing about a tough day with a friend who was there, or, like Bogost’s daughter, use a very un-fun experience as the motivating force to create something more pleasing for ourselves. Fun is as multi-faceted as we are.

A great example of the limits of the term fun are the work experiences that are sold as entertainment. Learning how to be a chef, which is a job, is offered as a “fun and relaxing” experience for groups of friends. People love Crossfit, an exercise program that makes people as fit as marines, in part because of “the community that spontaneously arises when people do these workouts”. The dichotomy between work and play doesn’t hold up for long. Many people love their jobs because they find them fun, or at least enjoyable. When I watch a young band on stage at a concert, it certainly looks fun, even though I know they’ve worked hard at their craft and are technically working as I listen to them ‘play’.

It’s simply misguided to seek happiness, fun, or any singular emotional experience as if it were a product in a box. It’s just not a realistic understanding of how emotional experiences happen. As Victor Frankl wrote:

…happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to “be happy.” Once the reason is found, however, one becomes happy automatically. As we see, a human being is not one in pursuit of happiness but rather in search of a reason to become happy, last but not least, through actualizing the potential meaning inherent and dormant in a given situation.

One related insight I learned from improv class is that fun things begin only when someone makes an offer. Someone has to make the first suggestion and give other people a chance to contribute in return. It can be as simple as inviting people out to lunch, to join you in a game, or even for a walk around the park. A wink, a nod, a smile, are all an offer of a kind. Someone has to initiate and create the possibility for an experience to happen. Like Bogost’s daughter we are always free to make offers to ourselves, to invent our own framework for the experiences we’re in, but some people find this much easier than others. Fun is easier to create when people we like, or are seeking fun as much as we are, are around us.

One approach is to think of the people in your life you find fun to be around: what is it that they do or say that makes you feel this way? I’d bet they simply make more offers, of the kind you like, when you are around them than other people do. They invite you into their stories, their jokes, or their hobbies, or find comfortable ways to invite themselves into yours. They share a sense of humor, or a sensibility, with you and offer ways to use that connection and grow it. If we want more fun in our lives then perhaps mostly we need to spend more time with these people or become more like them ourselves.