I was talking to someone dedicating his career to working in newspapers. I asked him what he thought of the work of Jeff Jarvis. He had no idea what I was talking about.
I met a musician the other day, and asked her how her work without a label was going, and referenced something by Bob Lefsetz. She didn't know who I meant.
The last time I was at an event for librarians, I mentioned Maria Popova. Blank stares.
A podcaster asked me a question, and I wondered if he admired the path Krista Tippett had taken. He had no clue.
We would never consent to surgery from a surgeon who hadn't been to medical school, and perhaps even more important, from someone who hadn't kept up on the latest medical journals and training. And yet there are people who take pride in doing their profession from a place of naivete, unaware or unlearned in the most important voices in their field.
The line between an amateur and professional keeps blurring, but for me, the posture of understanding both the pioneers and the state of the art is essential. An economist doesn't have to agree with Keynes, but she better know who he is.
If you don't know who the must-reads in your field are, find out before your customers and competitors do.
Too much doing, not enough knowing.
Or merely creating new wants?
Is it honoring your time or squandering your time?
Is it connecting you with those you care about, or separating you from them?
Is it exposing you or giving you a place to hide?
Is it important, or only urgent?
Is it right, or simply convenient?
Is it making things better, or merely more pressing?
Is it leveraging your work or wasting it?
What is it for?
Nothing grows to infinity. Certainly no project or business or idea.
And saying, "as many as possible," implies a series of trade-offs that you're probably not actually interested in making.
One of the most important decisions we make is almost always made without thought, without discussion:
"How big do you want this to be?"
It's a question that always gets in the way of,
"How good do you want this to be?"
That's the simple test of a bureaucracy that has lost its way.
If your employees can't answer how something they do helps the customer or the company, you've insulated your people from their jobs.
"It's our policy," is not an answer to why. Saying the policy again, louder, is not an answer to why.
Their inability to answer this simple question might be because you haven't taken the time to teach your people how to think about the work you do. Or it might be because you're hiring people (or rewarding people) who don't want to think about your work.
Don't you want the people who do the work to understand it? And don't you want your customers to feel respected by the people who serve them?
Some of the definitions are changing, but most fields have all three.
The politician used to be what we called a bureaucratic operative, someone who carefully chose his words and actions so he would offend no one. (Today, it's more likely to be someone who intentionally slows things down, who works hard to point fingers at the other side and is constantly on the hunt for money).
The patriot used to be someone who put aside his own interests in exchange for the organization he represents. (Today, it's more likely to be someone who's merely jingoistic, with a bit of short-term thinking thrown in for good measure). Plenty of blustering tech company CEOs could be put into this category.
And the statesman? The statesman is the person who will speak the truth, take the long-term view and do what's right, even if it hurts his position in the short-run. Fortunately, this definition hasn't changed much over the years. This is the leader who doesn't want to know which side someone is on before he can tell you if the decisions made were good ones or not. He's the one who works hard to see the world as it is, as opposed to insisting it must only be the way he expects. And mostly, he's the one you should work with, vote for or follow as often as you can.
Too often, the following statement is true, "For awhile, he was acting like a statesman, but then he became a short-term patriot and now he's merely a craven politician."
An interesting exercise: before you speak up (or fail to speak up) on something that matters, role play each of the three types and see which one matches your behavior.
How do you get to market faster than the competition? How do you become more efficient without violating the laws of physics? How do you save time, money and frustration?
It all comes down to decision hygiene:
1. Make decisions faster. You rarely need more time. Mostly, you must merely choose to decide. The simple test: is more time needed to gather useful data, or is more time merely a way to postpone the decision?
2. Make decisions in the right order. Do the decisions with the most expensive and time-consuming dependencies first. Don't ask the boss to approve the photos once you're in galleys, and don't start driving until you've looked at the map.
3. Only make decisions once, unless new data gives you a profitable reason to change your mind.
4. Don't ask everyone to help you decide. Ask the people who will either improve the decision or who have input that will make it more likely you won't get vetoed later.
5. Triage decisions. Some decisions don't matter. Some decisions are so unimportant that they are trumped by speed. And a few decisions are worth focusing on.
You don't need a consultant or a lot of money to radically improve your speed to market. You will speed up once you're comfortable going faster.
Transformation is possible. It’s possible to become a doctor, a skilled musician, a designer of beautiful objects. it’s possible to be transformed into the kind of person who leads, who connects, who sees the world as it is. And it’s possible to become significantly better at making change happen.
Today, I’m launching the altMBA, a real-time, month-long intensive program. This is a small-group process that works online, designed to help people move from here to there—to stand up and become the leaders and the game changers they want to be.
I've spent the last six months designing this program and building the team that will organize it. My goal hasn't varied: to help people leap, to make change that matters in themselves and those around them. Along the way, I discovered that the magic to creating this change is in peer-to-peer connection as well as hands-on projects. You will remember (and be changed by) your fellow students.
DETAILS: The altMBA is difficult, time-consuming and expensive ($3,000). It’s personal. The time and passion you put into it are truly scarce resources. Only 100 people will be admitted to a section, and the first section begins in June. Students are admitted by rolling admissions (first-come, first-served) and applications for the first session are due by May 17th.
The plan is that you will work harder than you’ve previously worked online. In return, you’ll find a significant amount of support, appropriate tools and most of all, work that matters.
GROUPS: The focus of the program is on group work, leveraging the power of your peers in order to extend yourself, both by learning from and teaching others. We’re building a cohort of people who will challenge each other to go further than they ever expected. Not merely during the course of the month, but for decades to come. The expectation is that you will spend far more time working with your fellow students than you will consuming the public online content.
SCALE: We’re going to severely limit our growth--the goal isn’t to be big, it’s to change things. Every section of one hundred will have several dedicated coaches. You will be seen and recognized and supported.
Yes, the altMBA is not for everyone, but it might be for you. And if you know someone who might benefit, I hope you'll share this with them.
Click here to see all the details of the program and to apply. Applications for the first section close on May 17. Let’s go.
Sometimes, words speak louder than actions.
Imagine how surprising and effective it would be if an infant said, "I'm so hungry, I feel like I might start to cry." Instead of guessing what the problem is, instead of finding ourselves emotionally fraught at all the screaming, we could get to the underlying truth of the problem.
Or consider how easy it is to get caught up with a co-worker who's disrespectful or a customer who is so distraught he can't see a way out of his problem. I've been to board meetings where the actions and the emotions were so loud it was difficult to hear what people really wanted to communicate.
It's easy to react, and it feels justified to do so. Tit for tat and "I'm not going to take this." But de-escalation through the power of words helps get to the truth far faster.
Commenting on the emotions that you are seeing is different than reflecting them back. Talking about what's happening defuses the tantrum that is just waiting to wreck the connection that could be become so valuable.
If the goal is connection, then connect. [Coincidentally, just discovered this book on the topic.]
Here's Cat Hoke talking about Defy Ventures.
And here's a brand-new interview about fundraising.
An alternative for a different audience: Givewell tells a story of radical, rational efficiency.
And a link to my rant about gala economics from 2011.
I also enjoyed Jessica Hagy's free new ChangeThis manifesto.
It takes guts to care and it takes hubris to stand up and do something.
On Tuesday, we opened applications for the altMBA, an intensive course designed to help people shift gears and make a bigger ruckus.
It's not an MBA. There's no accounting, finance or big business sleight of hand. It's also not a typical online course, with impersonal systems and no standards.
Instead, it's a personal small-group experience for people who want to make a difference...
So far, we've received applications from engineers, artists, non-profit executives, designers, marketers, and founders.
Mostly, we're hearing from people who may be a lot like you. At seminars I've run in the past I see it again and again: everyone is sure that they're the least powerful, least qualified person in the room. And then we all lift each other up.
One applicant, a successful editor, told me, "The course description is the single most terrifying thing I have read in my whole life. And for that reason, I’m saying: yes, if you’ll have me."
What people take away from business school isn't the coursework. It's the ability to ship, to connect, to be surrounded by people who expect more from us.
It's easy to overlook how frightening it is for many people to even consider an opportunity like this. Change represents a threat, and for many of us, change is something to be avoided. If you know someone ready to step up, I hope you'll share this with them.
Groucho Marx famously didn't want to belong to any club that would have him as a member. And one reason for his hesitation was the very real fear of not getting in. I think he would have gotten a lot out of the altMBA, and while it's too late for Groucho, I hope you'll check it out...
One of the driving factors in setting prices is understanding the issue of substitutes. If there are four kinds of bottled water and one is half the price of the others, guess which will generate all the sales? They are quite close to perfect substitutes, so take the cheap one.
Even though all the movies at the multiplex cost $12 a seat, you can't often substitute one for another to save money. You don't go to Mall Cop merely because it's $2 less. Movies aren't commodities, and the substitutes aren't perfect at all.
Last year, I asked a photographer to license a photo for a project. The photographer asked for too much—he had every right to, it was his photo after all, and if I wanted that photo, I had to pay him. But the thing is, I didn't need 'that' photo, I just needed 'a' photo. The available substitute was imperfect but acceptable.
The reason that ebook prices are less important than in many other industries is that the substitutes for Makers or In Search of Excellence are quite imperfect--if you want to know what that book said, the only way to really know is to read it.
Your job then, isn't to merely set your price low enough to keep people from seeking substitutes. It's to create a product or service unique or connected or noteworthy enough that the other choices are ever more imperfect.
Just about everything tastes better toasted.
One reason is the physics of the maillard reaction.
But more than that, I think, is the realization that toast is:
Custom made (for you)
With care (so it doesn't burn)
Ephemeral (cold toast is worthless)
Here's a little treat, something extra I did that wasn't necessary, for you, right now, here, I made this.
I wonder what else (ideas, services, products, relationships) could be toasted? Just about everything, I think.
100% certainty is not a variation of 96% or even 99%. It's a totally different category.
Certainty is binary, yes or no. The question, "are you sure it will work" is not about the work, it's about the sure. If you need to know that it's going to work, then you've committed to a very clear path. Some people go to work or school and do nothing except the things that they are sure about.
The other path is to do things that might not work. Work, projects designed to land on the spectrum of not sure.
When someone asks, "Do you have any case studies and rules of thumb from my industry about how someone in precisely the same circumstances did x and got y," it's pretty clear that they seek reassurance and a promise of certainty.
But all the good stuff comes from leaping. From doing the things that might not work.
Make it properly
Make it on time
Make it efficiently
Make it matter
Make a difference
Make a ruckus
It gets more and more compelling (and more difficult) as you move from making it properly to making change. But we need all of it.
Don't respond to emails.
Be defensive when I offer a suggestion when we meet.
Dumb down the products so they appeal to the lowest common denominator.
Treat me like I don't matter more than anyone else.
Put me on hold.
Don't miss me if I'm gone.
Maximize profit, not impact.
If you want me to be an apathetic bystander, it's not that difficult to accomplish.
Free markets encourage organizations to take leaps, to improve products, to obsess about delighting customers. One reason that this happens is that competition is always nipping at your heels... if you don't get better, your clients will find someone who does.
But once lock-in occurs, the incentives change. When the cost of switching gets high enough, the goals of the business (particularly if it is a public company) start to drift.
Google doesn't need to make search more effective. They seek to make each search more profitable instead.
Apple doesn't need to obsess about making their software more elegant. They work to make the platform more profitable now.
[For example, iMovie, which has destroyed all possible competitors because of lock-in pricing, but continues to badly disappoint most reviewers.]
Verizon doesn't need to make its broadband faster or more reliable. Just more profitable.
In many ways, it's more urgent than ever to engage in free market competitive thinking when you start a small business. But as network effects increase, we're getting worse at figuring out what to do about restoring free markets at the other end of the spectrum, at places where choices aren't as free as they used to be.
We all benefit when organizations that believe they have lock-in act like they don't.
...are rarely websites that convert as well as unpretty ones.
If the goal of your site is to position you, tell a story, establish your good taste and make it clear what sort of organization you are, then pretty might be the way to go. And you can measure the effectiveness of the site by how it impresses those you seek to impress, by its long-term impact.
But it's a mistake to also expect your pretty website to generate cash, to have the maximum percentage of clicks, to have the most efficient possible funnel of attention to action.
There's always been a conflict between the long-term benefits of beauty in commerce (in architecture, in advertising, in transactions) and the short-term brutality of measurement and direct response.
It's worth noting that conflict in advance, as opposed to vainly wishing you could have both optimized. You can't. The smart marketer will measure how much direct response it's costing to be beautiful, or how much storytelling is being sacrificed to be clicked on. Not both.
[A few readers asked me to expand on this idea: It turns out that in most encounters, the worldview of people who are likely to sign up, 'like', share, click, act and generally take action instantly is not the same worldview of people that convert into long-term, loyal customers over time. Take a look at the coupons in the Sunday paper, or the direct mail pieces that show up in your mailbox, or the websites that are optimized for click/here/now.
Unattractive high-response sites aren't usually the result of a lack of taste or talent on the part of the designer, they're optimized for one worldview.
The design that you and I might see as non-beautiful is in fact a signal to one group of people just as much as it is a turn off to the other group. My argument is that you can optimize for one group or the other, but you can't likely optimize for both.]
...I get the most email about are Linchpin and The Dip. I love how persistent books can be, always teaching us something.
Linchpin was just chosen as one of four books on the recommended reading list from the Air Force's chief of staff.
I also wanted to let you know that by popular demand, you can now get copies of my newest book, Your Turn, in the UK (and Europe) faster and with cheaper shipping.
Here's the best source for US orders.
Last week I discovered something about the Your Turn orders that both delighted me and blew me away: There's an 11:1 ratio. For every order that is sold to a new customer, eleven are re-orders, sold to readers who are buying more copies to share. That's astonishing.
Thank you. You're amazing.
[PS currently reading A Beautiful Constraint. It's a worldview changer.]
A chart tells a story. Explain what's happening in a way that's understood, in a useful, clear presentation that's true. But too many charts fail at this simple but difficult task.
Consider this chart of the frightening decline in reading among Americans:
It's a mess. It buries the story. It's confusing.
First, there's too much data. The 1990 Gallup poll tells us nothing. Second, it goes from new data to old, even though every other table in the world gets newer as you move right. Third, it is too complete, giving us not only the useless "no answer" category but two stats in the middle that hardly changed.
We can quickly clean it up and get this:
But it still doesn't work hard enough to say what we want to say. Footnotes belong in the footnotes, along with links to the underlying data in case we want to see for ourselves. But here is the truth of this data, a story well told:
To be actually trapped is to have no options, no choices, no possible outcomes other than the one you fear.
Most of the time, when we think we're trapped, we're actually unhappy with the short-term consequences of making a choice. Make the choice, own the outcome and you can start in a new place.
This is often frightening and painful, which is one reason it might be easier to pretend that we're actually trapped.