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 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, has little quality time with his family from his 12 hour days and exhausted weekends. 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 $100k 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 $100k 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 possibly 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.

This summary from dumbwealth.com shows to the worst and best occupations based on pay to stress:

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.

[updated with charts from dumbwealth.com, 3-10-2021]

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.


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).


  • 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.

Notes from PPP 2017 Chicago

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

2. Making Moonshots, Mathew Milan

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

Reference: The Little Grey Book on Leadership, Paul Pangero

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

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

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

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

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

General Principles:

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

The risk of deferring risk

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

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

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

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

3Carmen Medina, Lead Above Mediocre Thinking

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

Thinking Errors

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

“There are no solutions only tradeoffs” – Thomas Sewell

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

Ways to lead better thinking

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

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

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

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

4. Think Together from the start 

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

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

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

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

4. Julia Keren Detar, user research on shoestring budget

5. Nicole Maynard, Cultivating Happiness

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

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

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

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

7 suggestions:

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

6. Donna Lichaw, Leading with story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Questions to ask:

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

Book – the user’s journey

7. Lisa Welchman, Governing With Intention

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8. Mike Davidson, Interview / Chat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Basic rundown on his design leadership / management roles:

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

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

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

Day 2

9. Jay Newton-Small, Broad Influence

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

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

Public sector is often better for women:

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

Facts (unsourced):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Australian advocacy group: Male Champions for Change

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

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

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

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

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

5 principles

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

Think like an anthropologist

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

Stages of Change

Formal vs. Earned authority

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

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

11, Dan Brown, Achieving The Right Mindset

Card game – Surviving Design Projects

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

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

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

Mindset means how we:

  • Perceive
  • Understand
  • Choose how to react

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

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

Carol Dweck’s Mindset: The psychology of success –

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

Six more precise mindsets:

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

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

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

Mindsets translate perceptions to actions. List of actions:

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

12. Kathi Kaiser, How to start a company

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

13. Suzanna Bierwirth, Managing Up, Down and Sideways

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

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

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

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

13. Eli Silva, Designing for Diversity

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

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

Advanced persistent neglect

Often PD and OD have different value systems:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Things to do:

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

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

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

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

What changed in 8 years?

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

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

The Good:

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

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

The Questionable:

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

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

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

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

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

While researching The Dance of the Possible: the mostly honest, completely irreverent, guide to creativity, I studied the history of some of the most misleading ideas that have been popularized about creativity. Similiar to the Myth of Epiphany and the other creative myths of innovation, these sayings are misleading despite their popularity.

You likely hear these terms often, but here is the background you need to use them to help you:

1. Where “Think outside the box” comes from: The implication of this popular phrase is that you should challenge assumptions and test constraints, but anyone who says this phrase is betraying their own advice. If they were helping to solve the problem at hand they’d offer a specific idea, or solution, that qualified as “out of the box” thinking, rather than simply saying the phrase and demanding that someone else do it. It’s like yelling at someone to “bake the cake” when you yourself don’t know how to bake a cake either. 

The phrase comes from the 9-dot puzzle that was used in a research study conducted by J.P. Guilford in the 1970s (although the puzzle itself dates back to at least 1914). The trick to the puzzle is to ignore a common, but unstated,  constraint that puzzles like this usually have. The implication is that we invent false constraints all the time: and this is the one nugget of usefulness in the whole puzzle story. Challenging constraints is one approach to problem-solving.

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

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

The best intent of the phrase “think outside of the box” is to reevaluate the constraints you are assuming to be true. If you can find a false constraint, something you are assuming is required but isn’t, it often leads to more and better ideas. In the 9 dot puzzle the false constraint is the box, but on a project a false constraint could be you’re assuming a deadline that isn’t true, or a requirement from a customer that can be shifted or redefined. Making a list of all the constraints you are assuming to be true, and vetting them often yields one or more that can be modified to allow for other ideas to be explored.

For fun, there are many creative solutions to the 9 dots puzzle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you want more honest advice on creative thinking, check out The Dance of the Possible: the mostly honest, completely irreverent, guide to creativity,

(Thanks to the folks on twitter who suggested some of the above).

What We Can Learn From The Eiffel Tower

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


1. All Ideas Are Made From Other Ideas

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

latting tower

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



2. Conviction moves ideas forward

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

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

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

3. Even the best ideas meet resistance

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

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

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

4. Long-term commitments make history

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

How Ignorance Drives Creativity

[In the countdown to the release of The Dance of the Possible: the mostly honest completely irreverent guide to creativity, I ran a series of stories as a countdown  – you can see the series here]

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

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

But a more powerful way to think about ideas is that it’s ignorance, the lack of knowledge, that can also be the motivating force. Curiosity is an interest in finding out what you don’t know and you can only be curious if you admit ignorance. When you think you know everything, you’re in the worst kind of creative trap. It explains in part why why know-it-alls are so dull to be around. They never leave their safe turf of talking about what is already known. 

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

Shoshin (初心) is a term from Buddhism that means beginners mind. The notion is that everything, even things we know best, can be reexamined with fresh eyes and that allows us to find new ways of looking. It’s always possible to ask why is it this way? What don’t I see? What other perspective can I explore?  The trap is our culture pushes us to believe in the certainty of knowledge and to become bored with the basics. And this is why older generations often can’t see new ideas – their preconceptions and ego in feeling like a master block healthy kinds of ignorance. 

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

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

Here are some favorite quotes from the book:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inside the messy invention of the microwave oven

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

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

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

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

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

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


How the Post-it Note Was Invented

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


Why no one cared about the Wright brothers airplane

[In 28 days my latest book, The Dance of the Possible: the mostly honest completely irreverent guide to creativity, launches. I’m counting down until then with a story a day  – see the series here]

When the Wright brothers landed from their famous flight at Kitty Hawk on December 17, 1903 almost no one was there: just five people including a boy from the neighborhood. This is surprising to us in the present because in the nearly 114 years since that day airplanes have become central to modern life. But at the time airplanes were mostly a curiosity. Many other inventors over the centuries had attempted, and in some cases succeeded, at different variants of assisted and even powered flight. But the world shrugged at them all. “What problem does this solve?” was an excellent and largely unanswered question for these men and their machines.

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

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

What can we learn:

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

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

The Dance of the Possible

The Dance of the Possible is a short book that captures my best advice from years of work as a creativity expert in one fun, easy to read volume.

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

The book’s launched on Wed March 15th. Right now you can:

Early praise for The Dance of the Possible:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Orwell’s Animal Farm – Book Review

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

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

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

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

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

From the preface / appendix:

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

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

From the text:

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


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

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

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

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