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

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

What changed in 8 years?

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

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

The Good:

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

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

The Questionable:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What We Can Learn From The Eiffel Tower

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

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


1. All Ideas Are Made From Other Ideas

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

latting tower

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



2. Conviction moves ideas forward

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

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

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

3. Even the best ideas meet resistance

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

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

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

4. Long term commitments make history

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

How Ignorance Drives Creativity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some favorite quotes from the book:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inside the messy invention of the microwave oven

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

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

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

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

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

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


How the Post-it Note Was Invented

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


Why no one cared about the Wright brothers airplane

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

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

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

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

What can we learn:

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

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




The Dance of the Possible

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

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

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

Early praise for The Dance of the Possible:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Orwell’s Animal Farm – Book Review

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

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

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

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

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

From the preface / appendix:

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

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

From the text:

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


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

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

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

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



Hidden Insight and The Third Donkey

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

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

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

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

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

2016 Post-Election Sanity Guide

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

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


Eight lessons from Nazi Propaganda

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

Here is what I learned, in eight points.


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

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


New Release: Updated Edition of The Ghost of My Father

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reviews from the first edition:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get The Ghost of My Father updated edition.

Notes from Leading Design 2016

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

You can also find:

Farrah Bostic, CX is the CEO’s Job

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

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

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

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

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

Another customer value model is the Toyota production principles:

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

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

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

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

“FOMO leads to dalliances not marriages”

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

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


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

Gail Swanson, How to present to decision makers

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

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

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

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

Your Role

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

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

How to you build an effective presentation:

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

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

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

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

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

Tactical language (vebal judo book)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What to do?

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

Enabling conditions

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

People + Practices + Places = Outcomes (

What can you do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10/10/40/30 – Critical 10

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

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

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

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

10/10/40/30 – Making Moves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Structural methods
  • Embedding mechanism (leadership behaviors)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Motto “We will not prioritize relief over resolution”

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

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

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

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

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

Five kinds of value:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rochelle King, The itchy discomfort of trying to fit in

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

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

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

The nail that stands up gets hammered down – Japanese proverb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Davidson, Former VP of Design at Twitter

[Andy Hunt interviewed Mike for the entire session].

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jeffrey Veen, Crafting a Creative Culture

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three lessons:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three Meetings

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

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

Ryan Singer, Basecamp

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

A typical project in most organizations:

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

Their approach

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

Two phases

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

He offered the metaphor of butchering an animal.

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


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


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

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

Duncan Lamb, Let’s make something good 

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

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

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

The ease of measurement bias:

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

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

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

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

Braden Kowitz, Fostering Design Culture

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

Three patterns he has seen work:

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

Jason Mesut, Building your A Team

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

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

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


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Notes from Digital PM Summit 2016

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

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

1. Brett Harned – Army of Awesome (slides)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Natalie Warnert – Show Me the MVP!

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

She offered four goals or objectives:

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

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

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

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

  • Acquisition
  • Activation
  • Retention
  • Revenue
  • Referral

Regarding building software, she explained the Build Model:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Projects are complex for many reasons:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Essential skills for managing (complex) projects

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

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

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

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

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

Scope Creep causes

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

Effort Creep causes

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

Hope Creep

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

Feature Creep causes

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

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

Swoop and Poop

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

6. Carson Pierce, Your Brain Hates Project Management

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Predictable Mistakes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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



On The Quest For Fun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.