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: bit.ly/ghostmf”

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, Thejenmoff.com 

“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 (ibm.com/design)

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.


The 7 Questions For Any Tradition

A tradition is simply a custom that has been passed down from one generation to another. Their longevity can have many reasons, some good and some bad. We can not assume that persistence alone provides moral justification. Instead we must ask better questions about traditions before we judge their value.

The problem is we instinctively defend our traditions. We learn them when we are young, and when we grow older we naturally want to protect what our elders taught us. Entire communities bond around traditions and rituals, and that is a powerful uniting force, but it simultaneously creates great social pressure not to challenge them. We develop the illusion that they always existed in the form that we practice them, making it easy to confuse questioning a tradition with questioning the identity (or existence) of the community itself.

The danger is that in resisting change both regress and progress are prevented. It keeps the status quo strongly in place. If one goal of a society is to help the next generation have better lives than the previous, that goal demands a periodic reexamining of what those traditions were meant to do, and to compare them with the effect they have now.

It’s the confident community, and leader, who recognize a strong idea can withstand being questioned. And that a truly strong community will prefer to recognize a problem, or that things have changed, and work to solve it, rather than hide behind the defense of longevity.

7 questions to ask of any tradition:

  1. When and why did the tradition it start?
  2. What problem was it intended to solve? (See Chesterton’s Fence)
  3. How did it change over time? (every tradition has changed over time)
  4. Is the problem it was intended to solve still a problem?
  5. What ideas are we using the tradition to honor, remember or pass on to future generations?
  6. Can we carefully adjust this tradition to make it more effective to pass on those ideas?
  7. Do we need to redefine this tradition given all we’ve learned since it started?

One of the most popular traditions in the world, and one that serves as a great example, is birthdays. Most of the world celebrates them today, but this wasn’t always the case. The Egyptians invented the practice in ancient times but it was limited to recognizing their gods. Then it was the Greeks who began the practice of lighting candles on the cakes they offered to the divine. Later it was the Romans who were the first to celebrate the birthdays of ordinary people (but only men). At that time Christians didn’t celebrate the birth of anyone, seeing birthdays as highly egotistical and pagan in nature. It was only in 336 that the first Christmas was celebrated. On and on through the centuries the birthday tradition has changed in meaning and significance, used in different ways, in different cultures, to honor or ignore, different people for different reasons.

The lesson is that what we do today will be someone else’s history. All traditions are living things, shifting and changing, sometimes for the better,  sometimes for the worse, but they are all in motion, just at a pace we rarely notice. The more we can see traditions as just one of the many forces that tie us together, the better we can use them to help us protect and improve what’s best in our families, societies and civilizations.

“Every tradition we hold dear was once a new idea someone proposed, tried, and found valuable, often inspired by a previous tradition that had been outgrown. The responsibility of people in power is to continually eliminate useless traditions and introduce valuable ones. An organization where nothing ever changes is not a workplace but a living museum.” – From The Year Without Pants



The Real World of Technology (Book Review)

Despite our cultural obsession with new technology, we forget that the idea of new technology is old. We also overlook that there are patterns for how new technologies impact cultures and societies that technologists are often ignorant of. Without understanding the social impact of past technologies, we’re more likely to repeat mistakes, since we don’t even know what to look for.

9780887846366Recently I read The Real World of Technology, a short book by Ursula Franklin (Thanks Deb Chachra for the recommendation). It’s more academic in style than other culture/technology books I recommend, like my favorite book on the subject, Technopoly, but it had insights that were new to me. In a series of short chapters she identifies and addresses important observations about the sociology of technological change, and how, without us noticing, our choices have impacted us more than we think.

One of her primary observations is the distinction between holistic and prescriptive technology. A holistic technology means the person using the technology to create something controls the process of their own work from beginning to end:

Their hands and minds make situational decisions as the work proceeds, be it on the thickness of the pot, or the shape of the knife edge, or the doneness of the roast. These are decisions that only they can make while they are working. And they draw on their own experience, each time applying it to a unique situation.

Whereas a prescriptive technology is bound in defined steps and rules, with an obvious example being the assembly lines found at any factory in the last 150 years:

When work is organized as a sequence of separately executable steps, the control over the work moves to the organizer, the boss or manager. The process itself has to be prescribed with sufficient precision to make each step fit into the preceding and the following steps. Only in that manner can the final product be satisfactory. The work is orchestrated like a piece of music — it needs the competence of the instrumentalists, but it also needs strict adherence to the score in order to let the final piece sound like music.

Many technologies, like a guitar or a word processor, involve holistic and prescriptive elements. To play a song on a guitar I’m confined to six strings and 19 frets, and to write a poem, I’m confined to a language (and a keyboard of a specific design). But within those constraints I’d be free to work holistically, or even, to the core of Franklin’s point, decide on my own if I’d prefer a different tool (perhaps a fretless guitar).

But her primary point in the distinction is that is often technology, is especially as applied by organizations, is prescriptive by design or accident. And that corporations and bureaucracies can use technologies in prescriptive ways that only serve their own longevity.

More salient quotes from the book:

“Any tasks that require caring, whether for people or nature, and any tasks that require immediate feedback and adjustment, are best done holistically. Such tasks cannot be planned, coordinated, and controlled the way prescriptive tasks must be.”

“Today’s real world of technology is characterized by the dominance of prescriptive technologies. Prescriptive technologies are not restricted to materials production. They are used in administrative and economic activities and in many aspects of governance, and on them rests the real world of technology in which we live. While we should not forget that these prescriptive technologies are often exceedingly effective and efficient, they come with an enormous social mortgage. The mortgage means that we live in a culture of compliance, that we are ever more conditioned to accept orthodoxy as normal, and to accept that there is only one way of doing it.”

“Size is a natural result of growth, but growth itself cannot be commandeered; it can only be nurtured and encouraged by providing a suitable environment. Growth occurs; it is not made. Within a growth model, all that human intervention can do is to discover the best conditions for growth and then try to meet them. In any given environment, the growing organism.”

“Production, then, is predictable, while growth is not. There is something comforting in a production model — everything seems in hand, nothing is left to chance — while growth is always chancy.”

“The unchallenged prevalence of the production model in the mindset and political discourse of our time, and the model’s misapplication to blatantly inappropriate situations, seems to me an indication of just how far technology as practice has modified our culture.”

“Yet for people all around the world the image of what is going on, of what is important, is primarily shaped by the pseudo-realities of images. The selective fragments that become a story on radio and television are chosen to highlight particular events. The selection is usually intended to attract and to retain the attention of an audience. Consequently, the unusual has preference over the usual.”

“Anyone who has ever been at a demonstration and then seen their own experience played back on television knows what I mean. Frequently a small counter-demonstration to a large demonstration is treated as if it were the main event. Side-shows move into the centre and the central issues become peripheral.”

“I find it hard to imagine anyone actually standing next to a person who is being hurt or abused and enjoying the sight and sound of the experience, nor can I imagine such a direct observer not intervening or at least feeling guilty for having failed to do so. On the other hand, violence depicted on a screen appears to be acceptable and entertaining.”

The 7 Questions For Any Technological Idea

From Neil Postman’s lecture On Culture’s Surrender to Technology:

  1. What is the problem that this new technology solves?
  2. Whose problem is it?
  3. What new problems do we create by solving this problem?
  4. Which people and institutions will be most impacted by a technological solution?
  5. What changes in language occur as the result of technological change?
  6. Which shifts in economic and political power might result when this technology is adopted?
  7. What alternative (and unintended) uses might be made of this technology?

The lecture these questions come from is based largely on the excellent book, Technopoly: the Surrender of Culture to Technology.


Staying Sane In An Insane World 

How would you explain the events of this year to someone from the year 2050 who time traveled to visit us? Many adjectives come quickly to mind: turmoil, danger, violence, drama, unrest, uncertainty. But if you think deeper about trying to explain what it all means, you’d realize this challenge is impossible. We couldn’t accurately tell someone from the future about the meaning of the present because we can’t understand the present yet: we don’t know what happens next! We don’t have the context to make sense of these events. If we were alive in 1776, 1914, 1968 or 2001 we’d have a similiar problem. We can describe the significance of those years now only because we know what happens after.

It must be said that we are a stubborn and frustrating species. Too often we wait for terrible things to happen before we’re willing to change our minds, or change anything at all. It’s not a rule, as history doesn’t depend on rules, but unrest and disorder are sometimes necessary to wake us up and motivate us to grow. And to remind us we share our fates with each other. In the end, the best we could tell our friend from 2050 is “something is happening!” We truly are living in an interesting time.

Contrary to the title of this essay, I don’t think the world is insane. Instead it’s more that we’re designed to live at the scale of tribes, not cities and nations (See Freud’s Civilization and It’s Discontents, where he suggests we traded sanity away to get more security and stability). It’s not the world’s fault, in a sense, but our own.

When I get past my own emotions and rantings,  I conclude three things about this year so far:

  1. We’re addicted to news and news is shallow. Neil Postman said “information is a form of garbage” meaning that at a certain volume more information does not help you. The speed and quantity of news, which we presume to be an asset, does not help us gain perspective, understanding or meaning, the three things we want most. The news business thrives on fear, more so that fact. Most forms of news are not helpful, but they are plentiful and addictive.
  2. Our brains are poor at calibrating to a national or planetary scale. We’re easily misled by dramatic (but possibly unrepresentative) news. And we’re quick to use one narrow string of events to define our feeling of “how the world is”. Combined with cognitive bias, we’re prone to strong emotions based on irrational assumptions.
  3. Big problems we’ve ignored are now un-ignorable. The violence, racism, classism, anger and fear that have fueled the worst events these past months did not suddenly appear. Instead it’s the consequence of years, or decades, of problems we haven’t solved, or perhaps have largely ignored. Technology may have made these problems far more visible, but they were likely there all along.
  4. The world, on average, is getting better. Many people refer to statistics that show that by many measures the world has been a steadily improving place. This is good and hopeful news: if you need a boost of positiveness, then look at these charts.
  5.  But the trap of that last point is the flaw of averages: simply because the total average, of say violent crime in America, has gone down for a decade, doesn’t mean there aren’t sizable pockets where crime is going up. Averages can be misleading. For example, on average the universe is a very dead and boring place, but that average makes it seem like Paris or Las Vegas don’t exist. But they do! Statistics tend to oversimplify – they’re useful but easily misused and rarely definitive without asking questions and thinking through for less biased answers.

My advice is simple. We are emotional creatures, so find a healthy way to vent the negative energy that you feel. Go to the gym, or for a hike, and let your feelings out through exercise, which we all know we need more of. Scream at the sky and challenge the wind. But don’t target your rage at people, certainly not at strangers: the golden rule is a good guide here.

Another safe place to express yourself is a private journal, where any idea on your mind can be expressed safely and without judgement (Social media isn’t quite the same, because you are expressing yourself with the knowledge that someone is observing you). Or talk to friends who care about how you feel (and if you don’t have friends who care about your feelings, your real problem might be you need to find better friends).

But then, once you’ve expressed those emotions… slow down. Be curious. Seek thoughtful points of view that differ from your own: it’s the only way to provoke your own thinking to improve (instead of just responding and sharpening your preconceptions). Talking to people who agree with you on everything will teach you nothing.

I’ve read so much these last few months seeking answers. I don’t look to the news for meaning, because that’s not what it’s good for: instead I try to read deeper. Here are five essays, with varying views, that helped me to feel I understand what’s going on (or clarifying what I don’t understand). I don’t necessarily endorse their positions but to my point above, they help in the pursuit of understanding:


Quote of the week, from Viggo Mortensen

One of my favorite podcasts is Here’s the Thing, and on a recent episode host Alec Baldwin interviewed Viggo Mortensen about his latest film, Captain Fantastic. Towards the end he mentioned this:

“By taking the risk of trying hard means you are going to make mistakes, and then the most important thing is hopefully realizing that and doing something about it. Being a good dad is not a static thing. Having a good marriage isn’t a static thing. Neither is a democracy. Neither is a friendship. Tomorrow morning you have to start over, continue the process and make adjustments. And if you don’t… it’s a game that moves as you play, and if you don’t move you can’t play”

Viggo Mortensen, on Here’s The Thing

Five Ways To Survive Fathers Day

I always had a tough relationship with my father, and the week of father’s day is a tricky time. While I’m happy to see friends celebrate, and appreciate what they have, the day reminds me of what’s missing from my own life. Many people have similiar stories to mine, or their fathers are no long alive, making the day a complicated one.

I wrote the book The Ghost Of My Father (reviews / free excerpt here) in part to redefine who I am, and how I related (or did not relate at all) to the father of my birth. Along the way I found a different way to feel about Father’s Day and redefined into something positive.

Here are five ways to get through Father’s Day if it’s a difficult time for you:

  1. Make it “men who helped you” day. Make a list of other men (or women if no men qualify for you) who helped you in your life. Give them a gift or write them a note that you’re grateful for what they did. Perhaps a high school teacher or coach? A boss who mentored you? Or even an older friend, or uncle, who has given you fatherly advice now and then. Let them know that they helped you.
  2. Honor good fathers you know in your community. Do you have a friend who is a good father to their children? Father’s day gifts from children can feel obligatory, but a thoughtful note from a friend, someone who has no obligation, can mean a great deal to them (and to you). Tell them what you’ve noticed and why you appreciate the kind of father they are.
  3. Help other children without fathers. Nearly 30% of American children grow up without a father in their home. Whatever your story was, these are innocent children who might need help that you can provide. Donate to Extended Family, The National Fatherhood Initiative or other non-profits focused on helping families without fathers.
  4. Consider fathers from movies and books that have inspired you (Candidates include: To Kill A Mockingbird, Contact, Boyz ‘n The Hood or even Life Is Beautiful. See: Ten Best Movie Dads). A fictional father can still provide guidance or even be a role model. You can choose to think about them on Father’s Day and write in your journal about why those characters have earned a place in your memory.
  5. Think about becoming a mentor. Help a young person get some of the support and guidance you didn’t get (or that you did get and want to pay forward). Big Brothers Big Sisters is a great place to start, and the first edition of Ghost of My Father donated a portion of the proceeds to them. I was a Big Brother myself and highly recommend participating. It can change how you feel about your past, and your future, in profound ways.
  6. (Bonus) Work on your relationship. If your father is still alive, take a chance and reach out. My father died last year, and I’m out of chances to ever try and reconcile again, but perhaps there is hope for you. Instead of a cliche gift, buy a book about fathers and sons and give it as a gift, with a note asking him to have a conversation about it. The Great Santini and Big Fish are challenging places to start (and were made into excellent films). If you’ve done this and have book recommendations, leave a comment (particularly for books on father / daughter relationships, which seem harder to find)

How To Be a Better Speaker – The Short Honest Truth

For any skill, the only way to improve is through practice. Reading about that skill is not practice. Watching other people do something is not practice. Reading and watching can only help you develop a skill if you apply what you learn while you are practicing. Most people do not practice, which is why most people are bad at most things, including public speaking.

The most important thing to practice is thinking. Think about these questions:

  • Why is your audience there? What problem are they trying to solve?
  • What 5 questions do they want you to answer on the topic?
  • What work do you need to do to give great, practical answers?
  • What simple outline best expresses your answers, and gives a sense of progression?

Many speakers don’t spend enough time crafting the central message of their talk. Instead, most get lost in superficials: trying to look good and sound. But the reason people show up to a conference or presentation is rarely for superficials – it’s to get answers and encouragement. The experience is not about the speaker, it’s about the audience.

At any event, the one lecture that solves the most problems for the most people will be the best remembered. If you give the audience ways to solve their problems, they’ll overlook many superficial mistakes. This requires hard work. Good public speaking is always based on good private thinking.

Speaking is actually comprised of several skills: writing, storytelling and performing. A good presentation combines them all into one experience. To be a good speaker requires studying and practicing all three.

People worry the most about performing. The best possible way to improve performance is to (surprise!) practice. Take a few minutes of your material, before you make any slides, and do a practice run. Record it on video. Then watch it. Ask friends you know who will give you tough feedback to watch it too. Take notes on places where you get lost, where your points can be clearer and any distracting habits you might have. Then do it again. Revise and rewrite. And practice again. Practice is the only way to improve habits, improve your thoughts and get comfortable with your own material.

When you see a presentation that is smart, polished and looks natural, never forget how much effort was required to make it seem so effortless. There is no magic trick or secret despite what some books promise – there’s only thoughtful effort.


(Note: originally posted on Quora)

The Simple Plan for People Who Want To Solve Big Problems

[This is an excerpt from chapter 12, of the bestseller, The Myths of Innovation]

The Simple Plan

If you want to make progress happen, or be someone who brings good ideas into the world, this is for you. It’s the simplest, easiest, most straightforward way to convert your ambition into action. When I’m asked to give advice about managing creativity or how to make an organization “innovative” this is what I share.

  1. Pick a project and start doing something. It almost does not matter what it is. You will need many experiences in trying to develop ideas into things before you’ll be good at it, especially if you are working with other people. Don’t wait around. Go make a website. Write a draft. Draw a sketch. Make a prototype. Have a small ambition you can manifest quickly so the stakes are low, and the pace is fast. Until you start working on something, you won’t truly start learning. The temptation is to have a grand sounding universal plan, don’t give in to it. That can come later. Think of these early attempts as scouting for ideas. Before you can build a city, you must thoughtfully scout and map the landscape. Having a thing, even a napkin drawing, to look at improves the quality of conversations about the possible ideas. And if you can’t find a way to start a project at work, do it on weekends – history is full of creative heroes who never had approval from anyone to do it. There is always a way to start, just pick something small enough you can do yourself in an afternoon, or with a friend, and get to work.
  2. Forget the word innovation: focus on solving a problem. Most products out in the world are not very good. You rarely need a breakthrough to improve things, to beat the competition, or to help people suffering from a problem. If you carefully study the problem you’re trying to solve, you will discover many clear ways, some forgotten or executed poorly, to make it better. That’s the best place to start. If you solve a problem for a customer than makes them happy and earns you money, do you really think they will care if it’s “innovative” or a “breakthrough”? They just want their problems solved. If you cured cancer conventionally, would the patients refuse, saying “but it’s not innovative.” Of course not. Often it’s the combination of many conventional solutions, the combination obscuring how old some of the ideas were, that is called an innovation afterwards by people ignorant of the history of those ideas. So don’t worry. Sometimes small ideas, applied well, matter more than big ideas. Try to use workmanlike language: problem, prototype, experiment, customer, design, and solution, instead of the jargon of breakthrough, radical, game-changing and innovative. This keeps you low to the ground, and prevents your ego from distracting you away from simply making good things.
  3. If you work with others, you need leadership and trust. There’s no point worrying about which creativity or management method you’re using, or how much budget you’re going to spend, if people don’t trust each other. It’s the leader’s job to create an environment of trust so ideas move freely and can grow. Developing new ideas is scary and demands vulnerability and if people don’t trust each other their talents will never be revealed. It’s also the leader’s role to use their superior power to take risks, and protect the team from the dangers of those risks. This sounds obvious, but look around. It’s rare. Many people do not trust their teams, nor work for leaders who are willing to stake their reputations on the risks of a new idea. It’s uncommon to find someone in power who is willing to take the blame for problems, but also willing to give credit to subordinates as rewards for their efforts. If you’re a leader, the burden is on you. If you’re not, and you don’t work for someone who creates trust and is willing to take risks, good work will not happen where you are. Either move, find the courage to take a bet and force the issue, or accept the status quo.
  4. If you work with others, and things are not going well, make the team smaller. There is a reason great things often happen in small organizations. With fewer people, there are fewer cooks and fewer egos. In many large organizations there are too many people involved for anything interesting to happen. The first advice I give teams when things are not going well is to make the team smaller. If you’re the boss, and the politics are too complex, volunteer yourself to leave. Do whatever is necessary to reduce the number of people involved in developing ideas, and/or making decisions. The dynamic of getting 3 people to agree to take a risk together is much simpler than getting 30 people to do the same. Three people can achieve an intellectual intimacy faster, and be fully invested and passionate about a decision in ways thirty people can’t be. Another solution is to pick one creative leader, and give them more power. A film director is the singular creative leader on a movie. Yet most corporate or academic projects divide up leadership across committees, diffusing authority, which always makes decisions more conservative, the opposite of what you want.
  5. Be happy about interesting ‘mistakes’. If you are doing something new, it can not go well on the first, second, or possibly 50th time. This is OK. Your mindset has to be, ‘This did not go how I expected, but I expected that! What can I learn so the next attempt improves? (or teaches more interesting lessons)” The more interesting the lesson, the better. It’s the mind of an experimenter (see Chapter 3) that you want to cultivate, asking questions about everything you make, and using the answers to those questions to fuel the next attempt and the next. Many people quit on their 2nd or 3rd try at something, for reasons that have nothing to do with the history of innovation. There was not a story in this book where any of the brilliant minds mentioned succeeded on such a small number of tries. Perseverance, as simple a concept as it is, is rare. The more ambitious the problem you’re trying to solve, the more experiments and attempts you will need to get it right.

It’s easy to discount these 5 basic notions as they seem so simple, but that’s the trap.  I’m convinced ones that don’t overlook these have the highest odds of producing good work, in a healthy culture, with results the team and the customers are proud of. The challenge is commitment as it’s natural to dream of an easier way, and hope for a trick or formula or magical method to avoid the work and the risks. You will find many consultants and experts who promise you things that do not exist based on stories not supported by history. But I hope that the true stories you read earlier in this book will anchor your confidence, defend you against the many myths, and help this simple view stay with you.


[This is an excerpt from chapter 12, of The Myths of Innovation]

The Real Reasons Why We Vote The Way We Do

political-animalWe all tend to think our own political views are sound, but that it’s “the others” that are crazy, dumb or both. To get some perspective this election season, I recently read Political Animals: How Our Stone Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics, by Rick Shenkman.

It’s a good and important book. I’d recommend it for anyone trying to understand what is going on in America and to sharpen their own thinking about who to vote for. Kirkus reviews called it “An amiable tour of the socio-scientific evidence that accounts for our political miscalculations” and that’s a good summary.

The book aims at four observations:

  1. Many of us frequently disengage, becoming apathetic.
  2. We often don’t correctly size up our leaders.
  3. We punish politicians who tell us hard truths.
  4. We often fail to show empathy in circumstances that clearly cry out for it.

And the chapters of the book try to answer four questions:

  1. Why aren’t voters more curious and knowledgeable?
  2. Why do we find reading politicians so difficult?
  3. Why aren’t we more realistic?
  4. Why does our empathy for people in trouble often seem in such short supply?

A central theme of the book is cognitive bias, and how our brains are poorly designed for certain kinds of problem solving (e.g. evaluating candidates). Our brains are designed for life 20,000 years ago, and our natural skills for evaluating leaders don’t work very well at the scale of national governments.

We also have great faith in why we make our own choices, despite the powerful evidence we’re mostly irrational and heavily influenced by superficials. We see this flaw more easily in people who vote differently than we do than in ourselves. Shenkman sites many studies that expose the irrational and biased nature of our psychology as it relates to voting. It’s an eye-opening read in many ways, as it’s shocking to read so many stories from American history of our citizen’s absurd and subconscious motivations.

The weakness of the book is it is mildly repetitive at times. It’s well written and provocative, but some points are made multiple times and a tighter edit would have made it a smoother read. Like many books about culture, his arguments depend heavily on social psychology studies, which are easy to interpret in different ways (to his credit the Notes section is a thorough referencing of every study mentioned). It’d be easy to accuse the book of a liberal bias (Nixon and Reagan are used as negative examples), but that would miss the point. Most of his observations and evidence apply to our species in general, rather than a point of view. Swap out some examples and his points still resonate.

“We possess dozens of instincts— perhaps even thousands depending on your definition— and they involve virtually any human activity you can think of. William James, the father of American psychology, held that instincts guide us from birth. He even included crying and sneezing as instincts. You don’t have to be taught to cry or sneeze, after all.”

“The key to understanding how the modern mind works is to realize that its circuits were not designed to solve the day-to-day problems of a modern American— they were designed to solve the day-to-day problems of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. These stone age priorities produced a brain far better at solving some problems than others.”

“Bartels and Achen found, adverse weather conditions cost the incumbent party 1.5 percentage points. In close elections, that could spell the difference between a win and a loss. (More than half of presidential elections since 1900 have been won by five points or less.)”

“How can we tell when we should follow our instincts and when we should not?”

“Our evolved mechanisms, as Michael Bang Petersen points out, are designed to help us evaluate people in our midst. They are less good at helping us evaluate people at a distance. Our natural gifts of reading people are largely neutralized when we are reading politicians. The circumstances in which we get to know them are so artificial, it’s impossible most of the time to get a whiff of the real person beneath the fictional character created for public consumption. We think we know our politicians well. But we barely know them at all.”

“Like most elections, 1980 was a referendum on the past. People generally don’t vote on the basis of what they expect will happen in the future. The future is abstract. The past, in contrast, is concrete. As emotional human beings we respond most forcefully to the concrete. People didn’t vote for Reagan so much as vote against Carter.”

“As the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker has observed, we don’t want the truth to prevail, we want our version of the truth to prevail.”

“So who paid the most attention? Who, in other words, formed the main audience for the election? This was perhaps the study’s central finding. It was partisans— the people who had already made up their minds. The key audience wasn’t the people who had an open mind. It was the people who had closed minds. They didn’t follow the news to get educated. They followed the news because they found it interesting. The media had virtually no impact on their views. When they heard what they wanted to hear, they cheered.”

Quotes from Political Animals: How Our Stone Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics, by Rick Shenkman.

Why Do Idiots Get Ahead?

On Tuesdays I often write about the top voted question on Ask Berkun (see the archive). This week’s question is from C. with 101 votes] is Why Do Idiots Get Ahead?

I’m a diligent individual, but find it frustrating to continually clean up after the mess “idiots” create – but yet the “idiots” cannot be stopped. I have clout in my organization, yet individuals below me are supported by peers, while I’m ignored.

Your question is an interesting one, but not just for workplaces. As an experiment, lets turn your question around. Why Do Smart People Get Ahead?

I’m not sure they always do. The greatest single factor for how far ahead we get in life is simple: where and when we are born. If you were born in ancient Rome it was 50/50 you’d live past 10 years old no matter how smart you were. Then again, if your Dad was Louis XIV, King Of France in 1644, and you were the first son, you’d be far ahead before you said a single word. There were thousands of other smarter kids born that same day in France, but none were given the same advantages. Monarchy seems pretty limiting to us now, but even today who our parents were defined hundreds of advantages or disadvantages we didn’t pick, but often take credit for. Of course there are no guarantees: many children of the rich and famous often have a terrible time living up to the burdens of those legacies. But my point is there are many factors that define who succeeds in the universe, some we control but many we don’t. Some seems fair to us and some unfair.

Specific to the question of idiots, smarter people get ahead only when they are able to successfully apply their abilities to the situations and challenges they face. Some challenges in life depend more on social skills, passion, empathy, dedication and ambition than smarts. More so, words like smart, dumb, intelligent and idiot are used very loosely. Howard Gardner defined at least nine types of intelligence, including spatial and inter-personal smarts. Depending on what we’re talking about (life? work? sports?) different kinds of intelligence yield different advantages. Some titans of industry have terrible social lives. Many of our most prolific artists struggle with depression. Life is more complex than the simple scorecard we often use to judge others, and ourselves, with. “Getting ahead” seems a lousy measurement, since it demands the question: ahead of whom?

There are five different ideas hidden inside your question, as it relates to the working world:

  • Meritocracy depends on who defines merit. An idiot could easily get ahead in an organization that decided idiots are awesome. A crazy (or idiotic) CEO could say “we will give a 20% raise and rank promotion to the dumbest people we have.” With an incentive to be stupid, what would merit mean? We tend to think about meritocracy in simple, selfish terms, but it’s highly subjective and local to your culture. Some cultures value politeness, others directness. Banks reward consistency, but startups reward ambition. If you find yourself in a place where your definition of merit, or morality, doesn’t match those around you there are only 4 choices: influence their definition, change yours, accept your fate or move on.
  • When something goes wrong, look up. If ever you wonder why a team or group is a mess, look directly at their collective boss (or parent). It’s their job to make it not that way. If dysfunction and incompetence are common, hold those in charge responsible. Do you have a coworker who is truly incompetent? If yes, then ask: who has the power to fire, or reassign them, but hasn’t yet? (And who hired them in the first place?). Your problem might simply be your boss is terrible at her job (or her superiors are terrible, which constrains her abilities). A primary responsibility for a boss is to create a functional workplace where competence is rewarded. If the boss is failing to do that, not much else matters. They will spoil most attempts to right the ship, since they prefer it sinking (Perhaps because they are insecure and need to always feel smart, which is best achieved by having fools around them in an endless series of crises only the boss can resolve).
  • Intelligence is only one valuable attribute. An ambitious person with less talent can sometimes beat a lazy person with more talent. In workplaces, above a minimum level of intelligence, it’s often skills of listening, communicating, earning trust and being reliable that define a person’s reputation. Some abilities, like creativity, persuasiveness  and work ethic, aren’t directly tied to intelligence. Someone of average intelligence but who excels at these other skills, and knows their own limitations, can succeed faster than a smarter person who is very difficult to work with or to trust. We’re also influenced by our biases: we like some people and don’t like others for superficial reasons. It’s hard for that bias not to slip into the decisions we make, or who we are willing to support (or not). And of course: if you’re smart enough to know your coworkers are idiots, but not smart enough to work around them or find a new job, how smart are you?
  • You might be confusing idiocy with disagreement. It’s possible the idiots see you as an idiot too (judgement reciprocity). We’re wired to divide the world into us vs. them distinctions, which often blinds us to the nuances we need to see to begin to understand a different point of view. To say They Don’t Get It might reflect as much about your own limitations as theirs. How do they see the world? How do they see their role or their contributions? Maybe they’re just as frustrated as you are, and recognizing you share this perspective might lead to other kinds of progress.
  • Cumulative Advantage. Any initial advantage, from luck, skill or inheritance, can tilt future odds of getting ahead into a person’s favor. Many people who don’t seem, in the present, to deserve the status they have, may be benefiting from past earned, or unearned, advantage.
  • People rise to their level of incompetence (The Peter Principle). The reasons people are promoted often have more to do with the work they’ve done than their ability to play the role they’re promoted into. An exceptional soldier might be a terrible manager or leader of other soldiers. It’s a common trap in organizations that the only way to earn more money is to take on a management role. This motivates people who have no real interest in leadership or management to take those positions. Once there, their mediocrity prevents them from further promotion, but their pride prevents them from seeking “demotion” to a role they are better suited for.

Also see:


My Eight Favorite Podcasts

I am a heavy podcast listener. It’s a primary source of news, entertainment and education for me. Between daily workouts at the gym and frequent bus rides, I go through 10 to 20 hours of podcasts every week. I love audio only media as it frees me to listen while I’m cooking, running or doing other activities that don’t require my full concentration. I’ve tried out dozens of different ones, and over time I’ve arrived at a solid lineup. I know all too well how subjective “best of” lists are, but without writing a list for you personally, here are the ones I listen to and recommend most often.

My Eight Favorite Podcasts

  • BackStory – three American historians pick an important topic for each episode and go back through U.S. history with the goal of extracting lessons and comparisons with the present. They often pick timely subjects like: domestic terrorismelections, satire in America, or popular court trials (e.g. Serial/Making of A Murderer). I used to be surprised how each episode made me rethink my opinions, but now its an expectation they’re earned (a rare accomplishment). It’s a fantastic show that challenges your assumptions, and doesn’t bore you by taking itself too seriously.
  • Think – A straightforward interview program. It’s a simple show where authors talk about their new books and ideas. Host Krys Boyd consistently asks good, albeit often safe, questions, has good guests (some I’ve heard of before but many not) and outputs several episodes a week. I find many new books to read from her show. Try Rebuilding Our Roads or The 50th Percentile.
  • This American Life – The wonderful progenitor of so much modern storytelling (and podcast styles). Depending on the topic for each episode I might skip past, but they’re often so brave in the kinds of stories they’re willing to tell and so exceptional in how they tell them, that I’m a dedicated subscriber anyway. Try The SuperThe Giant Pool of Money, or Retraction (on the Mike Daisy truth/storytelling scandal).
  • Here’s the Thing – I was surprised by how good an interviewer host Alec Baldwin is.  Given his fame he gets exception guests and gets them to answer questions, and respond authentically, in ways you’d never hear in a standard interview. Try this excellent episode where he interviews Dustin Hoffman and Edie Falco.
  • In Our Time – A BBC Radio show exploring classical literature, history, philosophy, or science. Host Melvyn Bragg joins with two or three top class academic experts on the week’s subject, and leads them in a discussion about it. It’s an intensely intellectual show – they don’t play down very much to the audience (Bragg does a solid job of reframing and clarifying on behalf of the audience when needed, but sometimes it’s over my head). Start with Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, Salem Witch Trials, or Marie Curie.
  • The Gist – This news show centers on the talents of Mike Pesca. I love his blend of playful sarcasm with serious questions and commentary about what’s going on in the world. Currently one of my favorite shows. I don’t like all his jokes, but there is a cleverness running through everything on the show that pays off far more often than it doesn’t and I appreciate the effort even when it doesn’t work. Try He Watched Every Superbowl or Exercise Fad B.S. He often closes the show with exceptional insights like this one.
  • The Weeds – A political policy show by Vox.com. The podcast’s name refers to their goal of staying out of the weeds of sensationalized, shallow, political reporting. Instead they focus on policy, and the history of policy creation. I don’t remember how I found it, but I’ve been really happy with the depth of show, and how good a job they do making the creation of public policy interesting. Try Will Taxing The Rich Hurt Growth?, Immigration and the Minimum Wage and How Politics Is Making Us Stupid.
  • The Moth – this podcast is based on the live show of true stories told live, without notes. The podcast takes some of the best stories and compiles them in each episode. It’s wonderfully simple, diverse and provocative. Highly recommended, especially if you have an interest in storytelling of any kind. Try this exceptional story by Colin Quinn, about Robert DeNero’s birthday party.

Notable Podcasts

I don’t listen to these as regularly, but when I see a topic I’m interested in, or run out of other podcasts, I jump into these.

  • WTF – Comedian Marc Maron’s long running show is centered on him interviewing  one or two guests per episode. He is a often a good interviewer, but I find the pleasure I derive from him and the show inconsistent. I’ll listen if I know of the guest or their work. He often has an opening monologue, which some people love, but I nearly always skip (in part because it ends with his sponsor advertisements). Try this episode where he interviews NPR’s Terry Gross or Obama.
  • Radiolab – a brilliant re-interpretation of This American Life, and a leader of the second wave of more inventive kinds of storytelling. The show centers on the conversations between its two hosts (but spirals outwards for much of the show), and has a style that is more energetic and unpredictable than most shows of its kind.
  • Song Exploder – They interview a musician about how a song was written, and then play the song. It’s simple and fantastic. I listen to all their episodes where I know the artist or the song. Try this episode with Bjork (she is wonderfully eloquent here and I recommend it whether you like her music or not).
  • 99%  invisible – This is the show I recommend most to engineers, designers and people interested in how the world is made. But for reasons I don’t fully understand, I don’t listen to the show (part of it is I find Roman Mars’ voice distracting – sorry Roman!).

Based on my list, is there a podcast you think I should try? Leave a comment.

8 Reasons To Take My Public Speaking Workshop (April in Seattle)

I recently announced a new workshop on public speaking, taught here in Seattle. Here’s why you should sign up:

  1. You will have fun. Yes, it’s true. Public Speaking can be fun. The exercises and games we play are designed to make you feel safe, comfortable and have fun while you learn.
  2. Leave with confidence. Since you’ll spend much of the day speaking, or critiquing other speakers, when it’s over you’ll be a much better speaker than ever before. You will learn techniques to manage your fears, and how to prepare to give any presentation with confidence.
  3. It has amazing reviews. Here are results from the last offering: workshop rating 4
  4. You will become a better storyteller. You’ll understand the common mistakes speakers make, how to avoid them, and how to use these skills to help you in your career.
  5. The day is centered on YOU. This is a WORKshop. You will spend as much time as logistically possible practicing and getting constructive critique (there are other students of course, but you’ll be working at times in small groups, practicing and getting feedback).
  6. Leave with helpful resources. You’ll get a signed copy of the bestseller, Confessions of A Public Speaker, the book that’s helped thousands of people become better speakers. Plus you’ll get a feedback and critique guide, useful for practice on your own.
  7. Learn from true expertise. I make much of my living as a professional speaker, and have given hundreds of lectures around the world. I’ve appeared on NPR, CNN, MSNBC and CNBC as an expert on various subjects, including public speaking. Over the last 20 years I’ve made every mistake imaginable, and teach from a place of invitation: I want you to improve and learn from my mistakes.
  8. It’s Inexpensive. This is the final discount/beta offering of the course, at a very thrifty $350 (Early Bird) for a full day of first rate training.

Note: this is an intro to intermediate level workshop.

Next offering: In Seattle – Friday April 22nd, 9am – REGISTER HERE.


iPhone vs. Light Switch: which invention is more impressive?

If you could only pick one, would you rather have power in your home or a working iPhone?

We tend to believe that the latest inventions are the most significant, but often the opposite is true. Running water, electricity, shelter, heat, safe sources of food, and good medical care are far more important for quality of life than nearly anything else. And as far as convenience, a reliable power source in our homes that we can activate with the flick of a switch (something 25% of the planet’s population still does not have) is more impressive than an invention than merely uses that power.

I admit comparing technologies across time is unfair in some ways, as domestic electricity was invented first. But in terms of how much we depend on particular inventions to live, comparisons are useful. The exercise exposes how much we take for granted. Or perhaps more importantly, improves our aim for new inventions that do more than attempt to add convenience, but that truly improve our lives.

I recently conducted a simple poll on twitter asking the question: poll

Of 508 votes, 73% voted for electricity, and 27% for the cellphone (The poll didn’t let me explain, but my intention was the the cellphone could have unlimited power of its own and the internet worked fine on it. But if you chose electricity, you could not have a cellphone). Of course twitter polls have high bias (who are my followers? how do twitter audiences differ from the rest of the population) but it’s interesting nonetheless.

My belief is that for many among the 27%, if they actually experienced this choice for more than 24 hours, their answer would change. They  underestimate how much they depend on electricity to do for them, from keeping their food cold, to heating their apartment, to washing their clothes and keeping the lights on (better go buy some Apple candles).

In a recent post comparing Tesla to Steve Jobs, writer Rajan suggests the light switch is at least as impressive an invention as the iPhone. And I agree. If for no other reason, the invention of domestic electricity had to be done without the benefit of electricity itself. In the 1880s, in the age of horse drawn buggies and hand (or steam) powered tools, they had to not only invent electric power generators, and neighborhood transformers, but also provide the installation of physical power lines across cities, streets and sidewalks. To upgrade a phone is easy, but how would you upgrade the entire power grid of a city? Far more challenging. The rate of technology change is faster today, but mostly with technologies that are far easier to upgrade.

The iPhone and the light switch are both tips of the innovation iceberg. They depend on a massive network of other technologies and inventions to function. With no internet or cell service, a cellphone has limited use, just as a light switch in a house that hasn’t paid its power bills, doesn’t do much at all. As consumers we only see the final interface, the last layer, but what makes an invention impressive or not might be best understood by studying the amazing things required to make that interface work, that in daily use we’d never even notice.

Electricity demanded the introduction of entirely new concepts to ordinary citizens. A transformation the iPhone did not have to force, as its very name reuses concepts well known by the average citizen when it was released in 2007 (its arguably an amazingly powerful wireless telephone). The technological and conceptual leap of in home electricity likely surpasses, in impact on daily (and night) life anything we’ve invented in the last two decades (facts supported by the excellent book, Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World).

If you disagree, do this simple exercise: go for 48 hours without using electricity in your home (except the power required for your cellphone and internet access). Then report back and leave a comment.