Are engineers more creative than designers?

On Tuesdays, I write about the top voted question on Ask Berkun (see the lovely archive). This week’s question came via email from Pavel Pavia [43 votes]:

Are engineers more creative than designers?

Both answers (“Yes they are!” and  “No they are not!”) are naive. It’s foolish to compare massive groups of people against each other especially around a sloppy word like creativity. Assuming you work in the making of products of some kind, we all likely know some engineers who are very creative and some who are not. We also know some designers who are very creative and some who are not. I can’t even imagine trying to average them out into two neat little piles and have the resulting comparison be of much use. But what then? Why can’t we have some fun? ok – FINE. Here we go.

Let’s start by ditching the word creative. It’s a romantic word and the wrong one. When someone hires an engineer or a designer they want a problem to be solved. The creative ability we’re talking about is to develop ideas that solve problems into working solutions. Do good engineers and designers both do this? YES. They might be different kinds of problems, and they may use different tools, but both show up at work with the intent to problem solve, not “problem create’ or “problem multiply” (although such people do seem to exist, unfortunately).

The first argument is usually an anecdote about how “all the designers/engineers I’ve worked with suck” and to that I say you might be right. You’ve probably never worked in a healthy, successful organization that respected both roles and hired talented people to play them. But they’ve always existed – look at the teams that made the best products you admire and I bet there was a team of both excellent engineers and designers working together. Until recently it was only in elite companies that these investments were made, but that’s changing.

The next argument is often someone pointing out that designers are really just planners, since they can’t actually build their plans themselves. They need an engineer to go and built them. But so what? Why is the ability to build something necessarily superior to the ability to conceive the plan? It might be superior, but it might be inferior. I don’t think Beethoven could play the trombone, but he could write the plan for what they (and dozens of other instruments) should do, and that’s why we know his name and not his trombone player.

But I’m not taking sides here. Not really. To succeed at solving problems you need both the plan and the ability to build it.  The hard part is that depending on what the problem is, it can be either conceiving the plan or the ability to build it that is more difficult. And people are bad at recognizing when the most important challenge is in a domain that isn’t theirs (“If you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail”). Engineers are notorious for dismissing designers because of their own ignorance of what the customer’s true situation is (and the related potency of the designer’s plans), and designers are notorious for dismissing engineers because of their own ignorance of what the engineering constraints truly are.

The running sardonic joke in all this is designers and engineers tend to share more personality traits than not. Which include:

  • Passion for aesthetics (debates on visual style mirror debates on code style)
  • Preference for control (engineers love their control over bits similarly to how designers love control over pixels)
  • Reverence/Arrogance for idea purity (that there is a right way to do certain things)
  • A desire to make great things that help people

Which means many of the conflicts between designers and engineers are about bad management, the lack of a leader providing shared goals that unify these traits towards a common cause. Both trades are about problem-solving and when motivated can help each other with their individual tasks. Framed properly, and properly motivated, designers can have insights that help solve engineering problems and vice versa. All that’s required is some respect, shared goals and a curiosity to discover other ways to approach solving problems.

It’s useful to go back to a time when the distinction between designing something and engineering something didn’t exist. For most of the history of invention, people did it all themselves. When Archimedes or Archytas  invented the screw (which is a mind-boggling act of genius), was he designing or engineering? Would anyone at the time have cared in the slightest what label was given? John Roebling, the architect of the Brooklyn Bridge, knew that to make something great required both great engineering and great design. He couldn’t build a beautiful, functional, enduring bridge without them both. He and his team would switch between thinking more like designers and more like engineers whenever necessary, as they were unconstrained by the strict delineations we’ve created for ourselves in modern times, and we should all consider doing the same.

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[Note: Pavel’s actual question was “What is the reason for which we believe that the people who dedicate to the arts are more creative than the engineers?” but as I wrote an answer it morphed into a simpler question.]

Has Your Boss Set You Up To Succeed or Fail?

On Tuesdays I write about the top voted question on Ask Berkun (see the lovely archive). Yes I know it’s Thursday, but better late than never. Here’s this week’s question:

I have a new boss who I don’t trust yet. How can I make sure they’re looking out for me?

The term “set up to succeed” means a person has been given most of what they need to do their job well. A good boss does more than just set goals and give assignments: they should see themselves as responsible for ensuring good work happens (See: Lefferts Law of Management). First, they think through the steps that need to happen for someone to do a project and where the challenges are going to be. Second, they invest their own time clearing a path for those tasks to go more easily (so higher levels of performance are possible). A good boss builds a runway for you so that you can smoothly take off. Alternatively, you know you’re being set up to fail if you’re assigned a project with impossible odds, conflicting goals or a fraction of the resources required. When there are major obstacles on the runway, or no runway at all, your manager isn’t doing their job.

Here’s a simple list of questions you can ask to see how well set up you are to succeed (or fail). They can be used to structure a conversation with your boss about what you need and why.

  1. Do I have the right skills? If you’re told to pilot a Boeing 747 but you have never even flown a paper airplane, whose fault is it if you fail? What training and mentoring is provided to help close skill gaps? Does your boss understand what you can and can not do as well as what the project requires?
  2. Do I have the right resources (budget, staff)? You may have the right skills, but if you don’t have enough time or money to do the work, you’ll fail anyway. The goals of the project might need to change if the available resources can’t.
  3. Are there clear goals (and non-goals)? Clarity on desired outcomes is one of the most important things a leader provides. Does everyone understand and agree on how you’ll know when the work is done and that it was done right? A non-goal is something that’s easily assumed to be a goal, but should be avoided.
  4. Do the people you depend on have the motivation to help you? You may need several people to get work done before you can do yours. Will they prioritize your requests? Help make sure you have what you need? A good boss will have talked to other staff in the organization about your tasks and created an agreement for how you all will work together.
  5. Are senior management’s goals aligned with the ones you have been given? Your odds of success are much higher if your individual goals line up with those around and above you. If they don’t, you’ll be working against the grain of your organization. A good boss has made sure the right senior staff know about your projects and that all the goals line up.
  6. What roadblocks are in your way that you do not have the power or skills to resolve? Who has been made aware of them? Who has the power you need to resolve them? Has your boss worked with you on a plan? Have you warned the right people of what may happen if the roadblock is not cleared?

Incompetent managers often unintentionally set up their employees to fail. They don’t realize they are giving conflicting goals, poorly allocating resources or that they’re asking people to take on work that is politically sensitive and possibly damaging to their reputation. This means you have to advocate for yourself, first by thinking through the challenges you’re going to face and second by involving your boss in helping you clear them out of your way.

Of course, depending on the job you have, and how senior your role is, you may be expected to identify and solve many problems on your own. Some organizations call this “Dealing with Ambiguity” or “Organizational Agility” and think of it as a skill. It’s true that stronger employees can handle more challenges on their own. However, the reason why managers are paid more is that they have more responsibility and power for making good work happen. If they do nothing to help their staff succeed, they’re simply not doing their job.

What other ways have you seen managers set up their employees to succeed or fail? Leave a comment.

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What makes a book a good read?

On Tuesdays I write about the top voted question on Ask Berkun (see the lovely archive). This week’s question came via email from Dennis S.:

What makes a book a good read?

Great question, but there’s no easy answer! Which is true for most great questions.

The simplest answer is “are they engaged enough to want to know what happens next instead of doing one of the 100 other interesting things in their lives they don’t have enough time for?” which sounds nice, but what engages one person can turn off another. Which is why there are so many genres, styles and types of books. For fun, go read the 1 star Amazon reviews for your favorite popular book. Many people hated it and couldn’t finish it! Does this mean the book is actually terrible? Maybe, it depends on your preferences and opinions. Art is highly subjective. 

This fact is both wonderful and horrible. Wonderful because it means if you can find an audience for your particular approach to writing, you can be successful even if the rest of the world doesn’t like it. It’s horrible because success and what is good are entirely subjective which makes it easy to lose confidence, give up, or get distracted by looking for some mythical magic formula for “writing good books” which doesn’t exist. There are certainly good books on writing and story structure which are helpful, especially for new authors, but they’re more rough guides than step-by-step-magical-spells. Since books have no hidden parts, all the words are there on the page, it’s of great value to study books you and others think are good reads and ask “Why does this work the way that it does?”

It’s also useful to think what makes for a bad read. A bad read probably means:

  • The writer is very confused about what is interesting about their subject for the reader
  • The way sentences and paragraphs are constructed is confusing and hard to comprehend without reading them more than once
  • The book is organized poorly and it’s hard to understand why one story or chapter follows another
  • There is no momentum, emotional interest or curiosity created for the reader

Most serious writers have early readers who read drafts, give feedback, and help the writer understand what’s working in their current draft, and what it isn’t. They’re learning from actual readers which parts aren’t as strong as they think. All first drafts are bad. Many second drafts are too. The process of writing is rewriting and shaping material over many drafts into something good. A good read is usually the result of many revisions of a bad one.

Most serious writers also work with editors, particularly developmental editors who can guide and give advice broadly about what is working, or not, about each draft. The challenge is it’s hard to find people who give thorough and useful feedback beyond “I like it” or “I hate it”. You have to invest in finding good feedback givers, not to mention, being receptive to hearing things you don’t want to hear (which are probably true) and also being willing to make significant changes to a draft based on what you learned, rather than being stubborn or egotistical about it. 

My favorite one link to give people about writing seriously is Jane Friedman’s website, filled with resources, references and recommendations.

Which is more dangerous: writing badly or reading poorly?

On Tuesdays I generally write about the top voted question on Ask Berkun (see the lovely archive). This week I turned the tables, and asked my followers on Twitter a simple question:

Which is more dangerous: people who write badly, or people who read poorly?

Polls like this are mostly just fun for me. Even so, I try to word them carefully and think through how to make the question less leading towards one answer. And then before I post it, I stop to think up a guess at what the results will be.

In this case I predicted it would be nearly even. I thought the poll was clever, but not particularly interesting as binary choices often create false dichotomies. I admit I was quite surprised to see the result (21% write badly, 79% read poorly):

Yes, it’s true that binary polls are often unfair as in any real-life decision there are layers of nuance, clarifications and details that change both how you might define the problem and how you’d try to solve it. But the brutality of the forced choice has a power too, at least as a thought experiment: if you could only solve one of the two problems, which would you solve?

I see now that I agree with the answer. Here’s why:

  1. A bad reader can squander the work of a great writer. If the reader is only skimming headlines or reading primarily for speed rather than comprehension, it’s easy for them to misunderstand or overlook the value of what they read. Reading is always the last step and it takes place entirely in the reader’s mind, not the writer’s. And of course there are far more readers than writers as it only takes one writer to produce something, but hundreds or thousands of readers can read that one work.
  2. Misinformation and fake news are popularized by readers.  Our decision to share something on social media hinges on our (mis)comprehension of its accuracy, meaning or truthfulness, or our disregard for those things. What becomes a trend, goes viral or becomes popular is based entirely on readers opinions no matter how (un)informed they are, or how many great works from great writers they have entirely ignored.
  3. Learning to read better helps you to write better. The most common and worthy advice from writing teachers is to become a better reader and to read better works. It’s by improving the questions you ask as a reader, and developing the patience to pause and think, to reconsider, to glance between the lines, that the capacity to write well begins to grow. If we want better writers, we need better readers first.

Now that you are finished reading what I have written, what comments will you write for me to read? I look forward to reading your thoughts with extreme generosity, thoughtfulness, and patience :)

(I tried to find a picture of dangerous reading, and this was the best rights-free image I could find. I mean, she could trip in the sand, or maybe a big rogue wave could come up a knock her over, right?)

 

 

Star Trek and the ideas we must reject to save our future

On Tuesdays, I write about the top voted question on Ask Berkun (see the lovely archive). This week’s question came from Ms. Unknown:

What ideas must we reject to save our future?

It’s wonderfully romantic to view the world from the point of view of a checklist of things we can either choose to accept or reject. I don’t mean this in a judgmental way. It really would be nice if we could vote each year as a planet on which ideas to promote or reduce, and then all collectively work hard towards that goal. But the tangible reality of how human society works regarding ideas is a terrible mess. Or at least, more positively speaking, it’s a complex web of interactions of needs, wants, scopes, fears, cultures, timings and coincidences. We’re all fighting our local crusades for more happiness or security and rarely have much reason to think in a unified way about what kinds of ideas are best or worst for all of us.

Ms. Unknown offered four ideas to reject: competition, scarcity, individualism, and the endless pursuit of more. Which in their way, in a simple list, seem lovely. She is describing the utopian world of Star Trek, where all core needs for all people (or at least human earthlings) are met. Star Trek of course conveniently skips over how they got from our primitive world to theirs. Even assuming Ms. Unknown is right, how do we get there? It’s hard to see it happening without a science fiction cliche like a terrible world war or alien invasion, something to force our myopic species to recognize our survival depends on our partnership in sharing spaceship earth and not petty self-interests, but I hope to see neither of those scenarios play out in my lifetime.

I’m prone to dualism, so I see most ideas on this list as having good and bad elements. Competition can be good if it’s done in a healthy way. Many people only do their best work if there is some element of competition, like artists, musicians or athletes who see others doing interesting work that challenges them to keep improving and growing, perhaps collaborating and building on each other’s work. But you can’t have a football league, or a literary society, with only one team or one author. Bad competition is when the combined choices by some competitors work against the greater good (Say, when two businesses collude to fix prices in a market so that no new entrants can even try to compete). This means it depends. The ideas aren’t necessarily good are bad, it’s how they are applied, with what goal and what result.

By scarcity, I assume she meant of fundamental needs like food, shelter and water. It’s hard to argue against the improvement of the standard of living for all. What’s there to lose for the rest of us? Probably not much. But taken to the other end of the spectrum, a question about the Star Trek Utopia is without scarcity of some kind, how are people motivated to strive? The history of America is driven by people from other nations who wanted a better life, who felt a scarcity of opportunity where they were, and where therefore motivated to take risks. Without some kinds of scarcity, or perhaps at least ambition, what drives progress? (Although the Western obsession with progress is an idea worth unpacking on its own).

It’s only the last idea from her list, the endless pursuit of more, that I’m more easily swayed to her position. The endless pursuit of anything makes me think, at first, of mental illness. The endless pursuit of cleanliness. The endless pursuit of stuff hoarded in your apartment. The endless pursuit of pictures of kittens in hats. The endless pursuit of status and conspicuous wealth. The endless pursuit of endless pursuits.

Of course, some pursuits are noble: the endless pursuit of reducing stupidity or the endless pursuit of helping people be better to each other. Yet somehow the world culture I see often rewards certain endless pursuits far more than others. The developing world is chasing the American dream of the 1950s and 60s, without learning from the mistakes (cars, pollution, suburban sprawl) that came with them. Our economies depend on the endless pursuit of growth which depends heavily on the endless pursuit of selling us things we don’t really need.

We are still struggling with the basic notions of maintaining a long-lasting civilization, but have the hubris to spend most of our time and resources in denial of the biggest challenges to our future. Perhaps the idea we need to consider rejecting most strongly is that we’re good at learning from the past or collectively learning anything at all. There is wisdom here on planet earth, it’s just not yet distributed to the places and people who need it most.

What ideas do you think we most need to reject? I’d like to know. Leave a comment.

Contest: Take a photo and win free signed books (+$100)

Do you like to take photos? Do you own at least one of my books? Then this contest is for you.

Take a photo that shows the books of mine you own, share it and you get a chance to win a bundle of all 7 of my books personally signed to you and a $100 Amazon Gift Certificate so you can buy even more books (or other nice things).

To enter to win:

  1. Take a fun photo of your Berkun book inventory (you need at least one book :) Selfies are welcome. Or make it an action photo. Be creative. Make me laugh.
  2. Post it to Twitter, FB (public, otherwise I won’t find it) or Instagram – use #berkuncontest. You can also add it as a comment to this post.
  3. Or if you’re afraid of social media and/or think it has destroyed humanity, just send me a link to the photo.
  4. Contest ends noon PST Friday 2/9/2018

Sharing the photo enters you into the contest and by entering you give me permission to reuse the photo, OK? Winner will be chosen in a semi-random method of my choosing  (but photos that are creative or make me laugh will have extra odds of winning).

To give you some ideas, here are some of the photos so far.

 

How to master the ways to say NO

On Tuesdays I write about the top voted question on Ask Berkun (see the lovely archive). This week’s question came from Sam K. [via email]:

I lead a team in a very political organization. It’s hard to make things stick. I want to focus my team but I struggle with how to defend priorities as my boss and her peers often change their minds and commit to more things than we can possibly do. Any advice?

If you can’t say no, you can’t truly say yes either. The reason for this is if you’re always saying yes you’re giving away the limited resources you have to tasks that are not the most important things to do. This is like like having a savings account for retirement where you are always making withdrawals to buy what tempting things you happen to see: it’s not really a savings account anymore. And it follows that a project that says yes to fun, but low priority requests, isn’t really a project anymore: it’s just a collection of random bits of work. Without the authority to say no, it’s nearly impossible to do well at any kind of project.

Sadly some people in management positions struggle with this basic notion (and I fear for the state of their retirement accounts). They want to please everyone, and in trying to please everyone they likely end up failing everyone, as the project work that truly needs to be done never gets completed.

Master the many ways to say no

The reason why every project needs clear priorities is it provides a tool for everyone about what to spend resources on. It tells you what kinds of ideas or requests what to say yes and no to. While it can be hard work to get all the leaders to agree to one list of priorities, it’s essential to getting you the leverage needed to say no (and to manage a project well). Once the agreed priorities are in place, that priority list becomes a kind of contract. And you should confirm with the leaders that your job is to defend the priorities, even against requests they might have in the future.

This means when a new idea or request comes in, you simply check the priorities list: if it fits, you can consider it. If it doesn’t you need to say No. There are many different ways to say no and you should master them. You can say it with an explanation, a smile, an argument, a counterproposal, an offering of a glass a wine, or a reminder that you are not just saying no to them, but that you are defending the very priorities that they agree to previously.

To prepare yourself for this, you need to know all of the different flavors that the word no comes in:

  • No, unless this fits our priorities (which it probably doesn’t). This is the most common flavor of no that wise leaders use. It re-establishes that the priorities drive decisions. Early on in a project this often leads to a rehashing of why the priorities are the priorities, but that’s a healthy discussion. They may suggest a way to refine or clarify how the priorities are written. But the later you are into a healthy project, the firmer you should stand.
  • No, only if we have time. If you keep your priorities lean, as you should, there will always be many very good ideas that didn’t make the cut. Express this as a relative decision: the idea in question might be good, but not good enough relative to the other work and the project priorities. If the item is on the priority 2 list, convey that it’s possible it will be done if there is extra time, but that no one should assume it will happen.
  • No, only if you make <insert impossible thing here> happen. Sometimes, you can redirect a request back on to the person who made it. If your VP asks you to add support for a new feature, tell him you can do it only if he cuts one of his other current priority 1 requests. This shifts the point of contention away from you, and toward a tangible, though probably unattainable, situation. This can also be done for political or approval issues: “If you can convince Sally that this is a good idea, I’ll consider it.” As you may know that Sally is unlikely to say yes, which sends the requester towards a dead end: but it’s a dead end that leads away from you.
  • No. Next release. Assuming you are working on a project with more updates (e.g. a website or software project) or sprints, offer to reconsider the request for the next release. This should probably happen anyway for all priority 2 items. This is often called postponement or punting.
  • No. Never. Ever. Really. Some requests are so fundamentally out of line with the long-term goals that the hammer should come down. Cut the cord now and save yourself the time of answering the same request again later. Sometimes it’s worth the effort to explain why (so that they’ll be more informed next time). Example: “No, Fred. Our mobile app will never support the Esperanto language. Never. Ever. Because no one uses it and never will.”

On the day you are assigned a project, you should clarify with your boss that you need their support in saying no to people. It needs to be established across the organization that in most cases they’ll get the same answer from your boss, as they get from you. You can also familiarize your coworkers with this list of ways  you are likely to say no, perhaps even keeping it up on your whiteboard, prepping them for the likely conversations you will have in the future.


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This is based on an excerpt from the bestselling project management book,  Making Things Happen. Other classic chapters include:

 

Does the attention economy make life harder for creatives?

On Tuesdays I write about the top voted question on Ask Berkun (see the lovely archive). This week’s question came from Daniel H. [23 votes]:

 

Does the attention economy lead to creative burnout? (And make life harder?)

Trying to make a living doing creative work has always been hard for two reasons:

  1. The work is more emotionally challenging than other kinds of work
  2. There is more competition for income for the kinds of work more people want to do

For these reasons alone it’s no surprise that many writers, designers or even programmers experience burnout in their careers. There’s only so long even the most disciplined and tough personality can persist in making things of their own invention without wearing themselves out. And as is the way with burnout, it’s only once you are past your limits that you discover where you limits are (or how long it will take to recover from crossing them).

It’s true that in today’s short attention span information overloaded age there are new challenges for makers. It’s easy to blame these cultural shifts, and to see how software uses our brains against us, as a problem (and for the future of civilization it’s scary indeed). For creators, the news and information cycle is so fast that to earn attention for your work suggests you have to keep up with it all. But the other side of that technological coin is that it’s easier than ever to make things and distribute them. Most people today have in their pocket everything they need to write a novel, or make a film, and at the click of a button, put it online and make it instantly available to the entire planet. They can even use wonderful tools like Kickstarter, as I have several times, to get their friends, family and fans to help make it happen (something artists have often had to do in the past, from Vincent Van Gogh to Richard Linklater).

Of course the entire planet does not care when yet more media is added to the world (4oo hours of video are posted to youtube every minute, so even if the world cared, they’d still have to prioritize). But even 50 years ago, before the internet, there were more films made each year than anyone could possibly see and more books published annually than anyone could read. For a very long time we’ve been living in a world where there is a surplus of creative works, which therefore means they compete for attention (Herbert Simon wrote about the attention economy as early as 1971).  The attention economy has certainly intensified, but it’s part of an old story of how as civilization progresses, the means of creation enter more people’s hands.

One major positive difference that comes along with this change is the number of gatekeepers is lower than ever. Thanks to the web no one can tell me, or you, or anyone, NO, which was true until these last few decades. Before the web there was often no way to get your work distributed unless you had permission.  Given the choice of a) depending on the approval of others to finish projects and share them with the world, but having fewer competitors vs. b) being able to put anything into the world, but I have to compete with everyone else for attention, I definitely choose b. At least I have a chance. At least I can compete, and use my skills at creation as an advantage.

Getting back to the attention economy and burnout, the wise answer is that if creativity is a primary resource in your work, you have to manage your emotional health carefully. This means understanding 4 things.

  1. What is a sustainable pace of work for you (that can last for a long career)? This is more about self-awareness than what’s happening on Facebook (or whatever eventually replaces it). How many blog posts or tweets can you write in a week? Or short films? What if you have to average that over a month or a year? Or a lifetime? How much downtime do you need to sustain that level of production? These are questions anyone serious about being a professional maker of things has to consider. You can’t live on all-nighters (and the recovery time from those bold efforts is often longer than people realize).
  2. What is a sustainable amount of income/attention?  Much of my income comes from speaking at events. Speaking pays very well and is a short commitment, a combination that gives me the time and funding to support writing projects (including this blog, which is free). Most creative people in history realized they needed multiple paths of income, and attention, to make their life work (or do their life’s work). Only when you sit down and do the math can you understand how best to prioritize your limited time and what kinds of attention to seek (See Should I Quit My Job?).
  3. Attention from fans matters more than the rest of the world. The most famous people in any media get most of the attention. But the fallacy is that you need to be in that top 1% or 5% to make a living. That’s not true. You simply need enough fans and attention to earn you enough money to make a living (an approach services like Patreon have validated). By most measures I am not a famous person, nor a particularly famous author. I’ve made it work over these 15 years because enough people have seen my work and liked it sufficiently to pay for it, recommend it to others and come back for more (and I’m very grateful to them). Maybe you only need attention from a handful of the right people (Patrons of the arts, a specific professional group, venture capitalists, who knows) to earn the balance of the income you need. Michelangelo and Da Vinci were likely unknown names more than a few hundred miles from where they lived. Once you start targeting the attention that helps you most, what the rest of the world is obsessing about doesn’t matter anymore.
  4. A creative life is not the safe and secure path. I wish that it was, but I know it isn’t. The more creative the life you choose, the more risk that will come with it. If you want a secure, predictable career, consider an office job where you work for someone else. You will likely get a salary, health benefits and predictable days of working just from 9am to 5pm, all things I do not get as I am self-employed, just like many writers, bloggers, Youtubers, musicians and filmmakers are. It’s a mistake to enter creative life, including starting your own business, while presuming  the outcome is clear. It can be wonderfully rewarding, but as I’ve pointed out in this post, you are choosing to compete to earn a living, and even if you do everything right odds are high you can still fail. I recommend doing it anyway, you will learn more about life and yourself by taking the challenging path, but you should do it with your eyes open.

Did you find this post useful? You can help me write more good works by sharing this post. Thanks.

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How can you tell a wise person when you meet one?

On Tuesdays I write about the top voted question on Ask Berkun (see the archive). This week’s question is from Mike:  How can you tell a wise person when you meet one?

If you can’t judge a book by its cover, how can you judge a person on their first impression? I’ve never liked the cliche about “you never get a second chance…” because it’s rarely true. Sure, if you spill a grande coffee on someone’s lap, or set an entire dining room on fire, that would be tricky to recover from on a first date, but most first interactions with people are terribly bland, no matter how wise either of you are. There just is no secret wise-person handshake nor a wise-person detection app for your phone.

Instead it takes an actual conversation with someone to learn who they are and how wise they might be. Starting conversations isn’t that hard, but there is a stupor that comes over most of us when we meet new people. Mostly, it goes like this: “Hi, how are you?” “I’m fine, you?” “I’m fine, thanks” <silence>. There’s not much chance to notice a wise person here. Our questionable social skills with strangers means there are hundreds of wise people we have met at parties, or stood next to at the bus stop, and never knew it.

I understand social anxiety and fear of embarrassment, but yet it’s still mystifying that after 10,000 years of civilized life our species still hasn’t recognized how little there is to lose in talking to strangers (in safe situations). Why not just assume they are wise or interesting? What is there really to lose if you’re wrong? It’s easy to end conversations with strangers and they likely didn’t even expect you to start one. Therefore, why not make an offer to get outside of the boring conventions of daily life we so often complain about? More to my point, it takes a bit of wisdom about wisdom to find wise people.

Wisdom means not only experience, but an understanding of how to apply life experience (the past) to the present. This means the most likely way to identify a wise person is to have a conversation about life, which likely means to talk about a shared, or personal, event that has already taken place. It’s in their own observations that their wisdom or insight will be revealed (or not). This could take the shape of lessons learned, of attitudes about relationships or work, or thoughts about regrets and future dreams.

Now it’d be weird to go up to a stranger, introduce yourself, and demand “tell me a personal story that reveals how wise you are”. Don’t do that. But in most social situations there is a fast path towards sharing stories. For example, at a party you can always ask anyone you don’t know: “how do you know <name of host of party>” which almost always has some kind of story as an answer (and you can show your curiosity by asking interesting questions about their story). And then you can reply with your own answer, but add some leading context that hints at a story, or question, of your own. Perhaps “We went to college together a decade ago, but I have to admit I’m not sure I belong here. There’s just too many people I don’t know.” Or even ask for advice about how to meet new people at events like this, a fun meta-trick (as by asking this to a new person you are using the question itself to solve them problem).

Perhaps my party socializing advice seems bound to fail, and you might be right. Maybe it’s easier to start with people we already know, like friends, coworkers and family. But even then there must be some kind of inciting event to wake another person up out of their daily routines and pay attention to the fact you are offering a more interesting kind of conversation. There is no guarantee they’ll be interested, or even understand that this is what you are offering. Yet if you don’t try, you’ll never know if you just overlooked a wise person. Someone has to (kindly) incite the chance for insight. To find wise people, you have to be wise enough, or perhaps just sufficiently bold, to reach out for them.

Part of the challenge in finding wise people is what we perceive as wisdom is filtered by the chemistry created by our personality meeting the personality of another. Someone can be very wise, but also irritating. For example I suspect Socrates, for all his wisdom, wasn’t particularly easy to get along with (yet the meetup group that bares his name can be a great way to meet wise people). Maybe you meet someone wise, but they offer their wisdom in a way that makes you feel belittled. Or they have bad breath, which you despise. Or maybe you don’t like their sense of humor, which diminishes your interest in their sage like thoughts. Just because they are wise doesn’t mean their wisdom will be palatable, or even comprehendible, to you.

If I had to list traits of someone wise, they’d include:

  • Experienced – they’ve had interesting life experiences, both successes and failures, and they’ve asked good questions about them
  • Humble confidence – they have clarity to share, or to challenge my thinking, but without a strong need to convince me of their view
  • Insightful opinions – their thoughts invite consideration or raise my curiosity (even if I don’t agree with their conclusions)
  • (I very much want to list a good sense of humor, but I’m convinced that reflects my own biases)

Which leads to the observation that wisdom isn’t a universal attribute. Some people are very wise about business, but are terribly ignorant about how healthy relationships work. Or they can give fantastic advice about life to others that they fail to practice in their own lives (a notorious failing of gurus, experts and authors too). The singular word wisdom doesn’t stretch to cover the complexities of how it, or it’s absence, plays out in a person’s life, or in the advice they give. People in their later years certainly have more life experience to work from, but that by no means guarantees they possess any more wisdom about life than someone much younger than they are: a person might accumulate ignorance, or bitterness, at the same, or a faster, rate than wisdom.

In the end, mostly what we want are interesting people who are interested in us. Who are friendly, perhaps charming, willing to share what they know and perhaps willing to listen for wisdom they don’t have in new people they meet. Framed this way the titular question of this essay is less daunting. Once you befriend one person with these attributes, it’s easier to find more. And who knows, maybe while we’re trying to find what we need, now and then we can be the “wise person” someone we meet (at a party) is looking to find.

Where have you met the wisest people you know? How did you recognize them? Leave a comment.

The Last Jedi and Suspension of Disbelief

[There’s no askberkun post today – hope you enjoy this timely essay on films and expectations. There are no spoilers about The Last Jedi, but I’ll allow them in the comments.]

“The writer is always tricking the reader into listening to the dream.” —Joan Didion

We love or hate films based on what we expect of them. It’s easy to blame a movie’s creators, as we are their customers, but in reality half the work is ours. Do you want realism or an escape? Do you want to be satisfied or challenged? To think or to laugh? What rules from real life must be followed or do you want broken? Too often we leave it until we’re midway through a movie to realize that what we wanted wasn’t what we thought we wanted and we rarely blame ourselves for that mistake.

Two decades and ten films into the world of Star Wars I find my expectations hard to manage. I thought Rogue One, The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi were good “Star Wars films” but what does that even mean? It’s hard to watch any of these films now, new or old, without thinking at various moments about how it ties together, or cuts against, the history of the series. This is part of the fun, but it’s also a trap. These are now meta-movies. They are, as Lucas intended, serials, like the cliffhanger shorts he was inspired by, but is that what I really want watch? I’m not sure.

It’s hard to experience any event, or character, no matter how well done, in a Star Wars film as if it exists in it’s own time in it’s own ‘real’ universe. The burden of Star Wars (and most film series than span generations like Terminator, Indiana Jones or Spiderman) is any story you are watching is burdened by narrative masters that lurk in the shadows off-screen, in our memories. And franchise reboots only complicate the expectations game, playing on and against our expectations in both interesting and frustrating ways. I want to just watch the film in front of me, free from too much context, but that’s not the world these films put us in anymore.

All movies depends on the audience accepting a departure from their daily lives. We know these are actors on movie sets inventing a false reality. Mostly this departure is what people are paying for: an escape of one kind or another. Even the act of sitting in a full theater itself, sharing an experience with others, is something we don’t do often in life anymore. Consider the ritualistic decent into shared silence as the previews end and the feature film begins: when else in life are we in grand rooms with hundreds of strangers who all agree to respectfully share the silence? It’s evidence that everyone has reverence for the powerful shared escape of film.

Coleridge coined the term suspension of disbelief to describe the desired state of mind a reader, or viewer, needs to have for the work of art to function. But the question is: who should do the greater burden of achieving this state of mind? The creator or the consumer? We assume it is the creator, and they do have the lion’s share, but if the consumer is not in the mood for Shakespeare, or Amy Schumer, is there anything Shakespeare (or the director of the particular play) or Amy Schumer can really do about it? Films, like most commercial art, make promises in their advertising and marketing, but our expectations, when we sit in that chair and the film begins, are still are own.

More to the point about Star Wars, these are not realistic films. Most of the battles, plots and plans even in the original triology don’t hold up well to even the most basic questions (see: we dare you to explain Luke’s plan). It’s the suspension of disbelief that holds most viewers back from ever asking these kinds of questions. Which means the endless arguments about plot lines and holes, boneheaded choices by lead characters, or story arcs that go nowhere reveal the arguers chosen position on the spectrum of disbelief suspension: they only want to disbelieve so much. Which translates into something like “YES, movies with time-travel, or zombies, are fine. And in Star Wars, it’s OK that a long time ago spaceships somehow operated on different principles of physics, a power exists that unifies the universe in such a way that people can use it move objects with their minds, but NO a Starkiller base couldn’t possibly work.” Even when we criticize the inconsistencies of a film, we forget that we’re partly responsible for the rules we’re expecting a fiction to be consistent with.

Part of the value, in fables and fantasy, of bonehead choices and challenges to logic is the gift of superiority it gives to the audience. It’s straight out of the classic soap opera and hero myth narrative playbook to inspire the audience to judge mistakes, to debate flaws, and to be enraged by them. “What! They had an evil twin?” is well known as one of many standard genre tropes for soap operas and films, but even the Iliad expects us to accept the plausibility of a (successful) Trojan horse, the power of Helen’s beauty, and even begs the reader to criticize the hero Achilles (although perhaps not the supernatural nature of his powers).

And each person has their own, often subconscious, list of expectations they never want violated. Some of these rules, like say, the limits to how the force works, or what is allowed to happen to certain characters, feels fair as it’s defined by the legacy of the films themselves. If James Bond could suddenly fly, or Wonder Woman turned out to be an an alien robot from the future, the shock would be understandable (although comic books notoriously introduce shocking plot lines that violate rules). But if a story that has always had the same flaws continues to have them, and there is outrage, who’s problem is it really?

For all the worship of Campbell’s Heroes Journey, a model of storytelling Lucas claims to have used in on his final drafts of the original Star Wars, there’s something shallow about it’s advice. Stories based on universal themes, that are told in a universal way, tend to overly simplify the complexities of good, evil, love and hate. There are rarely “bad guys” and “good guys” in life in the way these stories suggest (and to be blunt, the evil of the bad guys, and good of the good guys, in Star Wars is never explained well, as explaining it is not a strength of this idiom. Luke and Rey could just as well have been “evil” given their rocky starts in life). Is this a problem or an advantage? Well of course it depends. Do you want a soap opera about a far away galaxy today, or a factual memoir by a refuge from a war torn country? A slapstick comedy or a family drama? Do you like the suspension of disbelief mythology and fantasy require, or do you want the down to earth reality of a good documentary about a topic you know well?

One meaning of the word idiom is a mode of expression, or a set of rules for what an audience can expect. Star Wars from the beginning was a fairly tale, a space opera, by design, not caring much about science (e.g. spaceships can’t make bank turns in space, nor make sound), logic or military strategy. Those attributes might be expected in a war movie like Saving Private Ryan, but that’s not the kind of universe Star Wars was created for and thrived in. Arguably a great film transcends idiom: it magically draws you into it’s world regardless of your preconceptions, boosts your suspension of disbelief through filmmaking craft, but that is harder to do in story that’s being told in installments over 40 (or more) years. Which leads to the question: if you saw a random Star Wars film without knowledge of any of the others, what complaints would you have?

Running jokes about how stormtroopers have terrible aim are good because they strike at a truth about the series and the genre. Another is the how heroes regularly pilot spaceships, including freighters, at high speed in impossible turns (that violate physics) through jagged landscapes and spaceships, ones they’ve never seen before, defies any understanding of science or human performance (assuming of course these characters are human at all). Flash Gordon (a major Lucas influence) had similiar problems and so does Indian Jones or The Fast and The Furious or any story with an action hero as the star, as if they die the series ends, but if there is no drama, our disbelief is broken, or we’re bored.

The grand trap might just be that as the age of Star Wars’ first audience matured into adulthood, we backfilled more mature expectations into it. The mythology shifted into religion as the literalness adults crave took control over the generous imagination of youth. For this reason we take seriously story details that were never quite meant to be taken that way. In Greek Mythology, the god Athena was born from the head of Zeus, but to my knowledge there is no reddit forum yet that debates how impractical (or not) this mostly metaphorical plot note might be. We criticize movies that explain too much as having too much exposition, but in fantasy if you start explaining things you chip away at the unreality of the whole thing.

The Star Wars prequels were of course terrible in many ways, but one perhaps noble failure was it’s attempt to make the Star Wars universe sophisticated, nuanced, mature, something more than a fairy tale. Lucas did this of course in direct conflict with the originating idiom the films were born in (most notably the tragic introduction of midi-clorians), but was he wrong to try? I’m not sure.  Had the film’s fundamentals of plot, writing and acting been sound, the (now) adult fan base might have widened their suspension of disbelief to allow for more mature kinds of storytelling, even within the context of a fairy tale. But now we will never know, and the series is burdened by the resulting damage (in a similar way The new Star Trek and Hobbit films have burdened their series too).

I found The Last Jedi to be both frustrating and liberating. As a movie I think Rian Johnson and his team did a fine job. They made a “good Star Wars” film. Given the truly otherworldly baggage they inherited they both took more risks, and yet respected the idiom, enough that I’ll keep watching, and for films of this kind I’m not sure what other opinion there is that matters.

The lesson in all this about suspension of disbelief is that it can be thought of as an exercise of imagination. For every plot flaw, every stupid choice a hero makes, for every consistency violation, we can play the generous game of filling in the gaps ourselves. Let’s assume there is a good reason for this, and if I need it I can create one myself, even if it’s not shown on screen. Our brains do it for us most of the time when we sit in a theater, but I advocate helping it along. This can be far more fun than tearing films apart (which is certainly fun too) as we go to theater hoping to escape, rather than to devise ways to ruin the attempt.

But of course we don’t go to movies to obtain homework. I agree we should expect much from the people who take our money for their movies, books and art. But in the end we choose which tickets to buy. By now we know very well what, at its best, the world of Star Wars can do. And there is far more pleasure to be gained by offering generous suspension of disbelief and by matching our expectations, to the idiom of the movie we’re choosing to go see.

[Last Jedi spoilers are allowed in the comments: so view them at your own risk]

 

Why Remote Workers Fail

[On Tuesdays I write about the top voted question on Ask Berkun (see the archive). This week’s question is from Regina [330 votes]: What gaps in communication exist in global virtual teams? Which I have simplified for your reading pleasure to why remote workers fail.]

The best argument about the viability of remote work is that it’s about results: any boss should let their good employees work remotely on a trial basis and see how it goes. If they can perform just as well, and their coworkers have no complaints, what’s the problem? You lose nothing and have a happier employee. Sadly many managers are afraid to try new ideas of any kind, which suggests they’re not all that great at being the boss anyway, but that’s a topic for another post.

Even when a remote experiment is done, and it fails, often it’s the remote worker, or the very idea of remote work, that gets scapegoated. This is sad. It’s far wiser to start by blaming the manager instead. Why? Well the Leffert’s Law of Management states that the starting assumption for managers should be that whatever is going wrong is their fault, and this rule applies to remote work too. A good boss realizes it’s their job to create an environment their staff can perform well in and remote work is just another scenario they should be taking responsibility for.

This sets the stage for the five most common reasons why remote workers fail:

  1. No ally in the main office. If there is a primary physical office, it’s hard for remote workers to know what they’re missing. Someone has to look out on their behalf in meetings, hallway discussions or post work happy-hour chats. No one likes having their time wasted, but without an ally decisions are often made that are not communicated to remote workers, even when those decisions directly impact them. It’s not hard to learn the habits of being an ally, but someone has to lead the way. Some workplaces adopt a remote-first culturewhere as many discussions, meetings and processes are done online, and with tools that can be used from anywhere and at anytime (which often benefits “non-remote” workers too, as all conversations are archived and searchable, people can be more productive when traveling, etc.). The boss is the most obvious ally for a remote worker, making sure their perspective and needs are represented.
  2. Cultural bias towards caution. Amazon and other companies talk about bias towards action as a key part of their culture. This means the default posture every employee is expected to have is to be aggressive in making decisions and taking action, rather than waiting to be told what to do or taking endless precautions before acting. Remote workers are more likely to do well in these cultures, as their autonomy becomes an advantage, rather than a source of frustration. Bias towards action also tends to create more resilient employees who are comfortable identifying and solving problems (including perhaps diagnosing co-ordination frustrations involving remote workers). The more overhead and coordination required by a culture, the more pressure that’s put on remote communication tools and the team’s ability to communicate well (see #4).
  3. Poorly defined role. Remote workers benefit from clearly defined roles where they have more freedom to decide on their own how best to use their time and resources. Even if their role requires high collaboration with other people, explicitly stating what’s expected, what powers they have and how their performance will be measured is essential to their success. Of course poorly defined roles are a problem in any organization, but the negative impact is amplified with remote workers. A role likely needs to be reevaluated, and possibly modified, when it’s transitioned to a remote position.
  4. Poor culture of communication. When you work remotely you depend heavily on written communication: email, chat rooms, and more. Organizations that have cultivated excellent communication skills make it much easier for people to work remotely, as it’s built into the culture to ask clarifying questions, to be helpful to coworkers and to document processes and decisions in a way that other people can easily comprehend. One of the great discoveries I made when I worked for WordPress.com (Automattic Inc. is 100% remote) was how thoughtfully everyone wrote and read, and at every level of the organization. It’s taken for granted that most organizations in the world consistently hire people with good communication skills, but in reality good/mature communication skills are uncommon, and the price paid for poor communicators is amplified for remote workers.
  5. The wrong person was hired. Hiring good people is hard enough, but to hire someone for remote work demands extra care. Remote work isn’t for everyone. Some people depend on the energy they get from being physically near their coworkers, or the psychological value of going to a physical place to “do work” and leaving to go home. Remote workers often need above average organization skills and self-awareness of their working habits. Being proactive as a remote worker is a major asset, as even in an organization with allies and a bias towards action, remote workers by definition must take more responsibility for themselves than other employees do. Automattic wisely hires by remote trial, which makes a candidate’s remote working skills part of how they are evaluated.

Despite the suggestion of the image shown below, it’s uncommon for remote workers to fail because they abused their privileges. Many people who choose to work remotely greatly appreciate not having to commute in traffic, value the ability to easily take care of their family (if they work from home) and the superior control they have over their lifestyle when compared to more conventional employment. It’s for these reasons I advocate workplaces give it a try and for people to ask for it. There’s much to gain and little to lose.

Have you seen other reasons why remote workers fail? Have a theory? Leave a comment.

Related:

Why The Right Change Often Feels Wrong

On Tuesdays I write about the top voted question on Ask Berkun (see the lovely archive). This week’s question came from J.R. [via email]:

What is a favorite theory that you wish more people understood?

A favorite theory I wish was more well known is the Satir Change Model. It’s popular in some circles, but often when I mention it in talks at events few have seen it before.  Virginia Satir was a family therapist who studied how families behave, and in particular, how they respond to change.

We like to believe change and progress are predictable, especially if we’re applying an idea we’ve used before or that is widely accepted. But according to her research (based on family behavior), and her model, even when we’re making the right change, at the right time, confusion and fear are likely.

The Satir Change Model is simple and has 5 parts (image by Jurgen Appello):

  1. Late Status Quo – this is the present, where things are stable, at least in the sense that they’ve been the same way for some time.
  2. Foreign element – This is Satir’s term for any change that is introduced, which could be something deliberate (a new healthy diet) or something surprising (new neighbors move in next door). It could be a new idea, process, team member or anything. Often people resist foreign elements, even if they come with the promise of solving a problem. People often prefer to keep doing what they have been doing (status quo), even if there are things they don’t like about the status quo, especially if they don’t have much trust in their leader or their coworkers.
  3. Chaos – (IMO this is the central idea of the model). Even if you are doing everything right, and the change is the right one, volatility will rise for a time. Average performance will drop as people experiment with adjustments to incorporate the new idea. Hidden assumptions, and emotions, will be revealed, which can be painful at first. A new idea may require new conversations, redistribution of responsibilities and more. What makes this phase challenging is it’s hard to predict how long it will take or if the path is the right one (e.g. “do we need to keep going, or is this direction a mistake?”)
  4. Transforming Idea – The job of a leader is to help a team work through the chaos phase until they reach clarity. This is challenging as each person might require different coaching, advice, support or training to adopt the new idea. And the team as a whole may need to reform, with different roles and responsibilities. Someone with leadership skills might correctly identify a new direction, but it takes someone with people management skills to help them through the transitions that the new direction demands.
  5. Practice and Integration – Once the new idea is understood and adopted, finally the expected gains can be seen and progress becomes predictable. And eventually stabilizes again as the new status quo.

The model isn’t predictive. It doesn’t tell you how much chaos a particular idea will generate, if any at all. It can’t tell you how long it will take before you find the “transforming idea”. It also can’t tell you whether the new idea you’re introducing is the right or wrong one (e.g. the chaos will never end, or performance will never recover). It’s simply a useful framework for thinking about the psychological patterns likely to arise when something changes.

Inexperienced people often confuse the chaos phase as a failure in their choice. And if they quit early, assuming “chaos” means they made a mistake, and revert back to the old ways of doing things, they likely will never have the confidence to try something that bold again. They now confuse the chaos phase with failure. This is a kind of self inflicted learned helplessness, where the necessary cost to improve and grow is now too psychologically expensive. People and organizations can become paralyzed here, as they’ve become extremely resistant to any threat of a “foreign element”, even though that’s exactly what’s needed to grow.

Some foolish people dismiss Satir’s work based on the question what do families have to do with workplaces or individual adult choices? But workplaces are based on relationships, and we learn our models for how to relate to other people from… our families! Your favorite, and least favorite, coworkers learned many of their patterns of behavior from their early relationship with their parents and siblings. How we define trust, love, collaboration, friendship and teamwork all come from our experience with the first and primary tribe in our lives.

Anuradha Gajanayaka compares the Satir model to Kanter’s Law, which states that “Everything looks like a failure in the middle.” She suggested that we “Recognize the struggle of middles, give it some time, and a successful end could be in sight.“

And that is a key takeaway from the Satir model. Even if you’re doing everything right in your life, or as a leader, when you try to change something be prepared for surprises. Plan time for “chaos” in response to the change, where it’s normal for performance to drop and for experimentation to happen until the new idea is understood, incorporated and refined.

How can you know someone’s true motives?

On Tuesdays I write about the top voted question on Ask Berkun (see the lovely archive). This week’s question came from Faisal [22 votes]:

Appearances can be deceptive. How can I, as someone who tends to accept things at face value, develop the habit of searching for true motives of others?

In a practical sense the answer is easy: stop accepting things at face value!  You need to ask more questions and think critically about the people you encounter. There are three ways to do this, all listed below.

However at a philosophical level, people are complicated. We often have multiple motives, some of which we might not fully understand when we act. Often we’re conflicted about our desires, regardless of what actions we take.  And the reasons that drive our choices in life change over time: we don’t live life with a single consistent unwavering motive for anything. The more intimate the relationship you have with a person, the more complex (and possibly rewarding) it can be to understand their intentions and how your choices impact each other.

That said, here are three ways to try to know why someone does what they do.

1. Ask them

Few people take the time to simply ask direct questions to people they encounter. Somehow it seems rude or confrontational, but if done in a friendly way it can enhance your mutual understanding of each other. To ask something like “thanks for helping me move my things, but I’m curious: why are you helping me?” raises the sophistication of your interaction. Instead of just being a transaction (e.g. buying you a cup of coffee), it now because a personal conversation about intentions and expectations (e.g. how do you relate to me or to people in general? Do you expect something in return? Is this about your own sense of identity?). What they say and how they say it will give you more data to consider about their motives than the actions they take alone.

2. Exercise your judgement

Any new experience can always be compared to past ones that are similiar. You simply need to ask yourself questions like:

  • What are the possible reasons, positive and negative, why this person is behaving in this way?
  • What reputation have they earned with me (or with others) in the past that I can put this recent act into context with?
  • In the past who else do I know that has behaved this way? What did their intentions turn out to be?

If you can make a list of similiar situations, and think through who else you’ve known in your life who you’ve been in them with, you’ll naturally engage your own deeper judgement.

3. Use the judgement of others

You can always ask someone you trust for their opinion. This can be particularly valuable if your trusted friend also knows the person you’re curious about. Simply ask them: “Hey Jane: Rupert keeps buying me coffee every morning. What do you think this means?” Maybe they’ve known Rupert for years as a friendly, generous person, and the gesture is nothing more than that. Or perhaps they share some insight into how Rupert is up for a possible promotion, and is trying to subtly raise people’s awareness of what he does around the office.

In the end we have to decide how much we trust other people and there is no perfectly foolproof way to do that. Sometimes we trust people too much and other times we don’t trust them enough. But if we’re honest with ourselves, we can learn from each oversight, and slowly approach a more accurate way to assess both why the people around us make the choices that they do, and who in our lives is worthy of our deepest trust.

The Pay-To-Stress Ratio

On Tuesdays (well, usually) I write about the top voted question on Ask Berkun (see the archive). This week’s question is from Kate N. [via email]: How can I evaluate the true value of a job offer?

I have two job offers: one pays less, but the quality of life (flexible hours, healthy culture) is much better. The other pays far more, and if I can do it for a few years I can be in a much better financial situation. What should I do?

A friend of mine has a job that, on paper, seems great: he’s a high paid business consultant, working for a Fortune 500 company with excellent benefits. But he also has high blood pressure, is overweight and works 12 hour days. Is he paid well? Most of us would say yes, but I’d say his pay to stress ratio is poor.

Pay to Stress is the ratio of the financial compensation compared against the true costs of life quality the job demands. The challenge in computing the ratio is the compensation packages an organization offers are well defined, lets say $150k salary, 20 vacation days and a gym membership. But to compute the stress, and negative impact, on our lives that job will demand requires homework and introspection most people don’t bother to do. The pay is well defined, but what is the true COST on a life for taking this job? It’s up to you to figure that out. For example: perhaps the gym membership is useless because you work too many hours to possibly use it.

In other words: If a job pays you $150k annually, but when you get home each night you are too tired, emotionally and physically, to spend quality time with your friends and family, are you really being paid well?

Pay, in professional circles, is often about status. It’s a symbol of the idea of success. It’s also easy to compare one job to another, or one person to another, in terms of salary, so so we use it as the singular measure of achievement. But this is foolish. The real yardstick of life is time. You can always earn more money, but you can not earn more time. What good is a yacht or a beautiful home if you rarely have the time to truly enjoy them? Many financially wealthy people are time poor, using their wealth to collect trophies they think signify a good life while never actually experiencing one.

Of course stress is subjective. Some people find challenging projects stressful while others enjoy them. In this context what I mean by stress is anything that you need to recover from before you can enjoy the rest of your life. The post work happy hour you need to have at the bar to decompress before heading home indicates a kind of stress took place during the day that you know you need to recover from. Another common symptom of stress are Saturday mornings (or afternoons) you spend sleeping late (trying to) catch up on the missed sleep during the week. Both imply your Pay to Stress ratio is high.

The wise choice is a job that rewards you well both financially but also in freedoms that help you use your time away from work for a high quality life. Those freedoms may include vacation time (which is terribly limited in the U.S. compared to other countries), the ability to work from home, flexible hours (so you can avoid the stupidity of commuting in rush hour) or a culture that measures/rewards your output instead of just your hours. The tech industry has long been a pioneer of many of these freedoms, but they are still rare in most of the working world.

In short, think through the total cost on your life of taking a job when you consider the offer. The potential employer can’t do that for you and likely will use that to their own advantage. If you knowingly take a high stress job that’s fine, especially if you see it as a short term choice to enable you to have better options in the future.

Why do people fall into the trap of the narcissist?  

On Tuesdays I write about the top voted question on Ask Berkun (see the archive). This week’s question came from J. Mill via email [equivalent to 1 special vote]: Why are so many people charmed by narcissistic people? Which I recast as: Why do so many people fall into the trap of the narcissist?  

As the son of a father who was a narcissist, I know this trap all too well. It works like this:

  1. You meet someone and are impressed.
  2. You’re not sure why, but there’s something powerful and deeply familiar you feel from them. Something you’ve always wanted.
  3. As you cross the doorway into their life, you see someone already inside on their way out. As they exit, sad and upset, they warn you not to trust the narcissist.
  4. But you smile in disbelief at what they say.
  5. How could it be true? You ask. The narcissist is so charming. They satisfy something you know you need. So you blame the person leaving for whatever went wrong.
  6. You know you are special – because the narcissist tells you so.
  7.  They promise you something you want – something important. Something no one else can offer.
  8. It feels good for a time. But then they forget their promise. You remind them, and they seem to remember.
  9. But then they forget again. Or they lie.
  10. Then you feel abused, but don’t want to believe it.
  11. Maybe they apologize, but not very well. They promise again.
  12. You wonder: have they earned your trust or are you just giving it away? But you think love is trust, so you offer it willingly.
  13. Then you are used again. And again. Each denial makes the next one easier.
  14. Another denial takes less courage than admitting to yourself who they really are and who you are for not seeing it sooner.
  15. By the time you hit bottom and can’t deny anymore, you’re ashamed, wounded and exhausted.
  16. Even when you summon the courage of confrontation, they ignore you. Or blame you for what happened.
  17. So you decide to leave.
  18. As you exit, you tell the next person coming in the door what you learned, but they smile in disbelief at what you say.

You can read The Ghost of My Father, my memoir about my family, for more thoughts on narcissists and how to overcome their influence on your life.

Why do so many managers have poor people skills?

On Tuesdays I write about the top voted question on Ask Berkun (see the archive). This week’s question is from Bobby [with 305 votes] is Why do many managers have poor people skills? 

Why do so many companies consistently and with depressing regularity keep promoting people to people manager positions when the clearly lack people skills? They are not supposed to do the job, rather get the job done. How can the if they can’t inspire and hold their teams together.

It’s healthy to start by asking how many people in any profession are good at their job? I’m not sure that management is an exception. Perhaps in general we’re not as good as the basic fundamentals in most professions and daily tasks as we assume. Trying to find a good car mechanic, landscaper or or a general contractor (to, say, remodel your kitchen) isn’t easy. Good people are hard to find.

Specific to management, “people skills” includes a wide range of things that are hard to find in one person: emotional intelligence, empathy, communication skills, decision making talents, role definition, honest/trustworthiness, conflict resolution, political acumen and more. It’s a hard job that’s often not rewarded well.

Here are five specific reasons why many managers you experience have poor skills:

  1. It takes a good manager to hire one. If the head of the department doesn’t have good people and leadership skills, odds are low they’ll hire someone who does have them. Either they won’t be able to recognize those skills, or even if they do, they won’t prioritize hiring for them. This means good people skills are often an element of culture: some organizations truly value it and make sacrifices for it (e.g. paying for training to improve management/people skills), while others do not. If the executive is merely waiting to retire and is indifferent to the legacy they leave behind, many kinds of dysfunction and incompetence will go on until they finally walk out the door.
  2. If good managers are scarce they go where they are rewarded. Better organizations, and better teams in any organization, will have a higher standard for many different aspects of work. It’s wise to scout for which teams are managed well and use your network to find your way into them. The best career move is often to find a better manager, even if it’s not the ideal project or role (they will help you in ways than more than compensate for those sacrifices).
  3. If the only way to get a raise is to manage, people become managers for bad reasons. In most organizations the only promotion that comes with more financial rewards is to start managing people. They’re not doing it simply because they want and like to manage people, they’re doing it purely for mercenary reasons. Smarter organizations recognize this conflict of interest and have at least two promotion paths: one that is independent and centered on individual skill/influence growth, and the other more traditional path of management. The Peter Principle is real, which means if a person ends up in a role they’re not good at it’s often easier politically for their boss to leave them there than to deal with consequences of admitting to and correcting the mistake.
  4. Some bad people managers “manage up” well. Managing up is the skill of influencing superiors. This is an important skill for anyone, but especially for managers. In some cases a bad people manager can succeed well enough in other ways and persuade their superiors that they are doing a wonderful job. Unless their superiors provide a channel for feedback from line level employees (e.g. skip level feedback), a manager is never evaluated in an objective way on what working for them is like. Another signal to senior managers of problems is retention: if employees flee working for a manager at a high rate, that should be a warning sign to any executive who cares about how well people are treated. But if executives don’t care to know, dysfunction can be rampant and stay well hidden behind superficial metrics and KPIs. Most cynically, if executives have a strategy where they don’t want employees to stay with the organization for long, why invest in managing them well?
  5. Some people prefer to be managed differently. In some cases it’s not that managers are bad, it’s that they don’t match the needs of the people they are managing. Some employees want a stable easy-going workplace, while others are ambitious and want a fast pace and high adventure. Some people prefer a hands-off work style where they have high autonomy. Others need regular coaching and mentoring. Of course a truly great manager recognizes these different needs and strives to provide them (even if they require him/her to stretch beyond their own natural management style), but sometimes what is cast as “bad management” is really a mismatch of expectations.

Keep in mind there are some things you can do when working for a bad manager to minimize your suffering. And of course if you are a new manager yourself, this guide can help you to avoid the mistakes listed above.

Why Do We Avoid What is Good For Us?

On Tuesdays I write about the top voted question on Ask Berkun (see the archive). This week’s question is from TJ with 532 votes] is Why do we avoid what is good for us?

Some people don’t eat well, others avoid exercise, and yet others are sufficiently comfortable at work that they don’t have the initiative to take a leap forward. I, for example, have a wife that I adore and do virtually everything with. However, our comfort means that we don’t maintain or build our network of friends. This is despite knowing the value of close friends and the fact that we enjoy when we do get out with friends.

The short answer is many of the things we know are good for us require short term sacrifices to obtain long term rewards. Due to our evolutionary history the older, and in some ways most powerful, parts of our brains naturally tend to prefer things that have short term rewards. In the time before agriculture and civilization finding food and shelter were constant challenges. Our ancestors who did not seek immediate rewards often did not live long enough to reproduce. The result, after millions of successful years, is that we are a species that hasn’t adjusted yet to when there is an abundance of things that used to be scarce (e.g. high caloric food, access to news/media). Our short term bias often works against us in modern life.

And of course our higher brains, the part that can imagine and set goals, finds it easy to dream of behaving differently, as those dreams tend to be ignorant of the powers of the peanut sized amygdala in our brains, rooted in survival instincts developed from ancient times, that drive much of our behavior. We’re also often blind to the powers of corporations and advertisers to use media to influence our behavior in ways that heavily benefit them (another challenge our ancestors didn’t have to face).

Scientist Clayton R. Cook offers three reasons why we don’t do what’s good for us:

  1. Lack of Awareness – we don’t really know what’s good (as there is much conflicting information about health, life and what is good)
  2. Lack of Permission – we have limited time and often choose what we’re pressured to do over what is best for us
  3. Obstacles & Roadblocks – prior commitments, self-control, peer pressure and lack of awareness of how habits work.

The good news is the popularity of the science of habits has soared in recent years (See How To Build A New Habit). We now understand much more about how to use the habits of our brains to help us rather than hurt us. In the situations you mention, it helps to break decisions down into smaller pieces that are easier to master. Another factor is making decisions once that last for a long time (reducing the short term pressure). A third is to have public/social commitments tied to them. For example always reserving Saturday evening on your calendar to meet friends at the (same) local bar (or your living room), and to have a recurring calendar invite with specific people to do it, greatly increases the odds it will happen regularly. Once it becomes familiar and the default behavior, and one reinforced by other people you care about (who may have more motivation for the habit on days when you don’t, and vice-versa), the short term vs. long term pressure fades: you’re not thinking about it in those terms anymore.

But of course all commitments require compromises (e.g. opportunity cost) – do we really, deep down want to behave in a different way, or do we just like thinking that we do? Sometimes our ego’s are in denial of our deeper feelings for what’s best for our lives. It takes experimentation to sort out the difference between what you want and what you think you want (or think you should want). Or how to decide when you need to push yourself to grow and get out of the comforts of complacency, or go easier on yourself. We have a fantasy that there are people with perfect habits, who live perfect lives, but I’m often surprised by how a mastery of external habits, especially those well endowed in the robotic allure of ‘productivity’, can have little bearing on a person’s true internal quality of life, or the quality of life they share with those closest to them.

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Notes from Seanwes conference 2017

I spoke at the Seanwes conference in Austin,TX this week about the Dance of the Possible. Here are my notes from the other talks I listened to (I was sick for a good part of the event so missed a few presentations. Too much BBQ? Quite possibly).

2. Kevin Rodgers, Copywriting

Three questions to ask:

  • What is your story?
  • Who do you serve?
  • Where is your why? (what is the story? what is your customers story? where do they match or connect?)

“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: The hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” ― Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces

“Nobody wants to read your shit.” – Steven Pressfield

“TL;DR” – Everyone

Simple version of hero’s journey for writing: Identity, Struggle, Discovery, Result, Call to Action

Examples: Weight Watchers Jessica Simpson ad, Rudolph the red nose reindeer song

Knowledge content is dead – there is a surplus of information and facts for free online. People have to feel something to connect with what you do. If they don’t feel it they won’t feel you.

Rodgers showed a long segment of his stand up-comedy routine, highlight jokes that used the Identity, Struggle, Discovery, Result, Call to Action pattern.

3. Scott Oldford 

Missed this one.

4. James  Clear, Habits

Aggregation of marginal gains: 1% gains in nearly everything you do. The results of small improvements, over time, is surprisingly, and powerfully, high.

Good habits make time your ally, bad habits make time your enemy

Four stages of a habit

  1. Noticing – happens because there is a trigger
  2. Wanting –  because there is a desire
  3. Doing –  happens because there is an ability to acknowledge the results
  4. Liking –  happens because there is a reward

Noticing is crucial for breaking bad habits and building new ones. Can’t change what you don’t notice.

Habit scorecard – helps noticing

  • Goal Write down each habit you perform each day
  • Then assign a score to each habit: positive, negative or neutral
  • Does this habit cast a vote for the desired identity I want to have?

Diderot effect: one purchase tends to lead to other purchases.

Habit Stacking: Hunan behavors are often tied to each oter. Habits come in bundles.

  • Meditation: after I brew morning coffee, I will meditate.
  • Exercise: after I get home from work I will change into workout clothes
  • Gratitude: after I sit down to dinner I will say one thing I’m grateful for
  • Decluttering: after I take my shoes off, I will put one thing left out away.
  • Financing: Before I make an online purchase, I will calculate how many hours of work it will cost me
  • Television. Before I turn on the TV I will say the name of the show I want to watch.

Dopamine is not just pleasure it’s also about desire and anticipation. Desire comes before behavior. Pleasure comes after it. It is your expectation that drives behavior. Every behavior that is highly habit forming – drugs, junk food games – is associated with higher levels of dopamine.

Motivation comes in waves. It rises and falls. Often motivation comes at the wrong time. When desire is high, we need to lock in the habit, or at least start it.

Commitment devices

  • Ask to have half a meal boxed up before you eat
  • Charge your phone in any room other than your bedroom
  • Automattic bank deposits
  • Delte social media applications on your phone (increase friction)
  • Put a post-it note contract on your door (can’t go to bed, or do pleasurahle thing, until you do X)

Habits do not form based on time, the form by frequency. They form based on rate of acting, or repeating.

Number of reputations required varies by difficulty of goal. Every outcome is somewhere on the spectrum of reputations.

“i begin each day of my life with a ritual: i wake up at 5:30 a.m., put on my workout clothes, my leg warmers, my sweatshirt, and my hat. i walk outside my manhattan home, hail a taxi and tell the driver to take me to the pumping iron gym at 91st street and first avenue, where i work out for two hours. the ritual is not the stretching or the weight training i put my body through each morning at the gym; the ritual is the cab. the moment i tell the driver where to go i have completed the ritual.

it’s a simple act, but doing it the same way each morning habitualizes it – makes it repeatable, easy to do. it reduces the chance that i would skip it or do it differently. it is one more item in my arsenal of routines, and one less thing to think about.” – Twyla Tharp 

One tiny habit can be the spark that sets off the sequence of habits you really want.

The two minute rule (David Allen) – downscale your habit until you can get the first two minutes of it to be useful and mindless. Optimize for the starting line, not the finish line.

The best way to build long term habits is with short term feedback.

Your identity emerges out of your habits.

The goal is not read a book, but to become a reader. The goal is not to write a book, but to become a writer.

It’s often wiser to remove the kink in the hose, vs increase the pressure/force you put through the hose (More thoughtfulness, less brute force).

The meta habit of thinking about your habits/result: integrity report – every summer:

  1. What are my core values
  2. How have I been living by those values
  3. Where have I failed to live by those values

Reflecting on this once a year pulls you back to integrity. Annual review every winter, focused .

Ivy Lee Method – 6 todo items per day, reorder in priority. When you come in tomorrow you only get to work top down until it’s finished. You can repeat each day.

5. Mojca Mars

Why aren’t you using Facebook ads? Common answers: complicated, time-consuming, and expensive.

Most ad campaigns fail because:

  • Selling to cold audience directly
  • Wanting to close the deal too quickly
  • Optimizing for the wrong metrics

Things to do:

  • Facebook ad pixel
  • Simple funnel: Attract visitors, generate leads, close sales
  • wwwh: why, what, who and how
  • Attract
    • Make first connection through value, build trust , Facebook pixel tag
    • what: valuable blog posts & video content
    • who: cold audiences – interest targeting (or target competitors), lookalike audiences
    • how: powerful headline (clear problem, questions and cta), branded design. Long format copy currently works well if you earn attention with first sentence.
  • Lead generation: first transaction with potential customer, qualifying audience
    • what: free ebook, cheat sheet, checklist, email court, free trial
    • who: retargeted audience, blog post readers, top web page visitors, contact page visitors
    • how: reiterate pain (remind them of the pain and offer sweet solution), specific outcome, clear & strong CTA (tell them the one next step they should take)
  • ?? (she spoke really fast so I got lost on the structure of her talk several times)
    • why: profit, scale your business
    • what: tripwire product, productize service
    • who: retargeting (avoid cold audiences), existing leads, pricing page visitors, sales page visitors
    • how to promote paid product/service: Creative: focus on specific buyer persona, communicate specific value proposition, Social proof & Testimonials
  • Close sales (don’t think she ever go to this?)

Facebook is trying to compete with youtube and vimeo, so they are promoting video content more than any other. It’s a good time to invest in Facebook video (which may be true, but it’s also what she appears to do for a living).

Summary:

  • Stranger->value->Prospect->Lead Management->Lead->Sale->Customer

Notes from Business of Software Conference 2017

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

1. Jason Cohen : Healthy, wealthy and wise

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

The founder who posted this had four choices:

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to do the tough thing:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Seth Godin, Lessons from 33 years in software

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Chris Savage, Scaling Well

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes from Mind The Product 2017

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

1. Martin Erikson

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

2. Jake Knapp , author of Sprint

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next sprint: Repeat and perfect

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

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

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

3. Blade Kotelly  (Advanced Research Lab, Sonos)

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

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

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

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

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

Two phases of innovation:

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

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

4. Teresa Torres

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

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

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

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

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

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

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