Systems under severe stress degrade.
While individuals might do extraordinary work while pumped with adrenalin (lifting a car, running through a burning building), panic can decrease the efficacy of a system by 30% or more--often completely destroying it.
Compare the typical throughput of a highway during rush hour (when it's filled with seasoned commuters) to a similar road when people are fleeing a natural disaster.... in the first case, the cars naturally keep a safe distance, drivers are sufficiently alert, everyone gets home. In the other, there's a complete standstill.
Or consider how the TSA functions in an environment of stress (like the Orlando airport). A combination of leisure travelers, poor management and bad architecture means that (at least every time I've been there), there's a lot of yelling, invaded space and wasted time. Not to mention frayed nerves among Disney-overdosed parents in need of anything but more hassle.
Here are some thoughts for someone who might want to write a book about the panic tax (or someone who runs a system that shouldn't be degraded):
1. The cost of ameliorating panic in your system is always less than the cost of the lost productivity when panic hits. In other words, all the other steps are worth it.
2. Slack is the enemy of panic. When in doubt, add resources, or even simpler, remove requirements. That's what the gated entry points on crowded freeways do... the entire road goes faster when fewer cars are on it, meaning that gating cars at the entrance is actually far faster than letting them on over the course of the commute.
3. Media voices, politicians and others that create panic for a living need to own responsibility for the way their actions dramatically magnify the cost we all pay.
4. The answer to, "should we panic," is always no. Always. Panic is expensive, panic compounds and panic doesn't solve the problem.
5. Install panic dampers at every opportunity. TSA officers should be trained to talk more softly and slowly when their systems approach capacity. Sound deadening devices should be tuned to be most effective when volume increases. The police should be trained to seek compliance second, after they are able to diffuse panic.
6. They call them panic attacks for a reason. After-action review, an attack-analysis session, ought to be held whenever a system freezes under panic. Find the instigator, the first step, not the last one, and invest in what it takes to ameliorate it next time.
Mostly: Panic averted is far cheaper than panic survived.
There's no more important criticism than self criticism.
There's no amount of external validation that can undo the constant drone of internal criticism.
And negative self talk is hungry for external corroboration. One little voice in the ether that agrees with your internal critic is enough to put you in a tailspin.
The remedy for negative self talk, then, is not the search for unanimous praise from the outside world. It's a hopeless journey, and one that destroys the work, because you will water it down in fear of that outside critic that amplifies your internal one.
The remedy is accurate and positive self talk. Endless amounts of it.
Not delusional affirmations or silly metaphysical pronouncements about the universe. No, merely the reassertion of obvious truths, a mantra that drives away the nonsense the lizard brain is selling as truth.
You cannot reason with negative self talk or somehow persuade it that the world disagrees. All you can do is surround it with positive self talk, drown it out and overwhelm it with concrete building blocks of great work, the combination of expectation, obligation and possibility.
When in doubt, tell yourself the truth.
Fast growth comes from overwhelming the smallest possible audience with a product or service that so delights that they insist that their friends and colleagues use it. And hypergrowth is a version of the same thing, except those friends and colleagues quickly become even bigger fans, and tell even more people.
Often, we get sidetracked when we forget about "smallest possible." If you make the audience you're initially serving too big, you will dilute the very thing you set out to make, avoid critical mass, and compromise the magic of what you're building. You'll make average stuff for average people instead of something powerful for the few.
By "smallest possible" I don't mean, "too small." I mean the smallest number that eventually leads to the kernel of conversation that enables you to grow.
[Minimum Viable Audience, a great term, originally coined by Brian Clark.]
The kind of listening we're trained to do in school and at work is passive listening. Sit still. Get through it. Figure out what's going to be on the test and ignore the rest. Your eyes can glaze over, but don't let it show. Try not to nod off. People are talking, and they'd like the illusion of listening to accompany that. Don't interrupt.
Passive listening is letting the other person talk.
Active listening, on the other hand, requires that you interrupt when you need a clarification, and it requires that you ask a truly difficult question when the speaker is finished.
If it's worth listening to, it's worth questioning until you understand it.
Perhaps you've decided that the idea of Pick Yourself is sort of a new-age mantra, a promise that everyone is entitled to what they want, right now.
What a shortcut it seems to be. A false promise, holding out that illusion that we can get what we want if we just raise our hand. Pick yourself, you win...
It's precisely the opposite.
If you want to be responsible for making music, make music. If you want to be responsible for writing, speaking, making change happen, go do that. Waiting to get picked is a form of hiding, not realism.
No, it’s not always possible for everyone to succeed by being the most popular, the most clicked on, the most liked. In fact, it will never happen. No one is promising that, I hope. What pick yourself means is that it’s never been easier to decide to be responsible for your own work, for your own agenda, for the change you make in the world. To have a chance to matter. Not to be finished right now, but starting now.
Pick yourself means we should stop waiting and whining and stalling.
The outcome is still in doubt, but it’s clear that waiting just doesn’t pay.
Customer service is difficult, expensive and unpredictable. But it's a mistake to assume that any particular example is automatically either good or bad. A company might spend almost nothing on customer service but still succeed in reaching its goals.
Customer service succeeds when it accomplishes what the organization sets out to accomplish. Google doesn't have a phone number, doesn't want to engage with most users. McDonald's doesn't give you a linen napkin. Fedex used to answer the phone on one ring, now it takes 81 seconds for them to answer a call. None of these things are necessarily bad, they're merely examples of alignment (or non-alignment).
Organizations don't accidentally run ads, don't mistakenly double (or halve) the amount of cereal they put in the box. They shouldn't deliver customer service that doesn't match their goals either.
Here are some uses of customer service:
To create a significant competitive advantage by engaging with customers in a way that others can't or won't. This is what the over-the-top customer service approach of Zappos did. They went from being a commonplace (you can buy shoes from anyone, we're anyone) to a customer delight company that happens to sell shoes. Rackspace does the same thing with technical support.
To streamline the delivery of inexpensive goods produced in an industrial way: This is the model of most fast food places. Deal with the exceptions quickly and well, and keep the line moving. Part of this mindset is to not make it easy for people to complain, and to treat every complaint in just about the same way. When you get a bag of rancid nuts from Planters, sure, you can visit the website, click a bunch of times, fill in a form and let them know, but they don't use it as an opportunity to earn your loyalty. "Here, take four coupons, each good for a dollar off one purchase, thanks, we're done."
To lower expectations and satisfy customers by giving them exactly what you promised, which is not much: This is the model of automated customer service at most big web companies. They'll do just about anything to avoid an interaction with a human, and they're clear about this, meaning that they should only end up with customers who are okay with this.
To raise expectations and delight customers by giving them way more than they hoped for, which was a lot: This is a truly difficult promise to maintain (Apple did it with the Genius bar, but they rarely surprise there any more). The secret is to find a focus, a budget and a scale where you can actually deploy talented individuals to keep this promise.
To dance with customers in an act of co-creation: This is part of 37Signals' secret. From their book to their blog to their clearly stated point of view about platforms and the way they do business, they invite customers to debug with them in an ongoing dialogue about finding a platonic ideal of utility software. They don't promise perfect, they promise engagement. Over-inform. Speak with respect. Be clear about the invitation. This is a very special sort of customer service, and companies often think they're doing this but end up cutting corners and are merely plodding along, disappointing those that would have preferred to engage instead.
To diminish negative word of mouth: Many large organizations resort to this, the last step in a sad journey. As soon as a wheel gets squeaky, they grease it. But that's all they do unless pressed. The problem is that many of your unhappy customers are too busy to get squeaky, they merely go elsewhere, and the ones who you finally do try to help are so pissed off it's too late.
To build extraordinary trust: This is the initiative taken by an institution to do far more than is expected, at a human level, to earn the privilege of serving again. This is the banker who visits you in the hospital, merely because she heard from another customer that you were ill.
To treat different people differently: One way to reward your best customers is to treat the best of them substantially better than others--the word will spread, others will want to join this group, and those in it will be hesitant to switch to a competitor. But if you make that promise, you need to double down on it substantially, continually improving how you treat your favorites.
To race with competitors to lower customer service costs just a bit more than they will: This is the current progression we see among industrial titans who see customer service as a cost, not a profit center. When you measure this, you can't help to want to drive the cost down, and you will do it just a bit faster than your competitors, because to do it too fast is to risk condemnation. Alas, in just about every industry that the internet has sucked the profits out of, we see this cost-cutting race to the bottom. It's not going to end well.
Because you can: This is awfully rare among public companies, but there are many organizations that treat people as they'd like to be treated. Not to grow market share, but because it's the right thing to do.
So it's clear that good customers with urgent problems left on hold by Fedex is a mismatch between what they built customer service for and what they're doing with it. And that a busy startup that doesn't invest as much time as they could in co-creation communication is not serving the goals of the beta fully. On the other hand, the novelist who doesn't invest time in answering reader mail is probably doing good customer service, since reserving her best efforts to write another great novel is precisely the promise she has made.
Every single person who makes budget decisions, staffing decisions and customer service decisions must to be clear about which strategy you picked, needs to be able to state, "we're doing this because it's congruent with what we say customer service is for."
Obviously, you can mix and match among these options, and find new ones. What we must not do, though, is plan to do one thing but then try to save time or money and do something else, hoping for the results that come from the original plan without actually doing it.
Customer service, like everything an effective organization does, changes people. Announce the change you seek, then invest appropriately, in a system that is likely to actually produce the outcomes you just said you wanted.
Make promises and keep them.
Students choose to attend expensive colleges but don't major in engineering because the courses are killer.
Doing more than the customary amount of customer service is expensive, time-consuming and hard to sustain.
Raising money for short-term urgent projects is easier than finding support for the long, difficult work of changing the culture and the infrastructure.
Finding a new path up the mountain is far more difficult than hiring a sherpa and following the tried and true path. Of course it is. That's precisely why it's scarce and valuable.
The word economy comes from the Greek and the French, and is based on the concept of scarcity. The only things that are scarce in the world of connection and services and the net are the things that are difficult, and the only things that are valuable are the things that are scarce. When we intentionally seek out the difficult tasks, we're much more likely to actually create value.
Wine coolers, Julia Roberts movies, fondue, Geocities pages, baby on board signs, a line at the Krispy Kreme...
Ubiquitous doesn't mean forever, and popular isn't permanent. Someone is going to fade, and someone is going to be next to take their place.
Is that iPhone game really conspiring to put blue squares up at the last minute, just to foil your attempt at a perfect score?
Human beings are story-making engines, and when we're confronted with randomness, we make up an egocentric version of what happened, and it involves us.
So when things randomly go well, we give ourselves a pat on the back, a reminder of why we deserved it. And when they don't, we seek out the ghost in whatever machine did us wrong and come up with a reason.
All the time we spend inventing reasons is probably better spent responding to what occurs.
Brands don't care about you...
Institutions don't care about you either.
The only people who are able to care about you are people.
The question, then, is this institution owned and organized and run by people who will allow the people who work there to care?
Generally, the answer is 'no', because caring is unpredictable, hard to command and regulate and sometimes expensive in the short run.
What a shame.
A simple question with an answer that's difficult to embrace.
What are you willing to give up today in exchange for something better tomorrow? Next week? In ten years?
Your long term is not the sum of your short terms.
We spend way too much time teaching people technique. Teaching people to be good at flute, or C++ or soccer.
It's a waste because the fact is, most people can learn to be good at something, if they only choose to be, if they choose to make the leap and put in the effort and deal with the failure and the frustration and the grind.
But most people don't want to commit until after they've discovered that they can be good at something. So they say, "teach me, while I stand here on one foot, teach me while I gossip with my friends via text, teach me while I wander off to other things. And, sure, if the teaching sticks, then I'll commit."
We'd be a lot more successful if organized schooling was all about creating an atmosphere where we can sell commitment (and where people will buy it). A committed student with access to resources is almost unstoppable.
Great teachers teach commitment.
Sometimes, it takes some prodding to make a leap.
For the next 48 hours (through Friday, March 20), the five-copy pack of my new book is on sale.
Use the discount code spring to save 40% off the discounted price, and get the books for about $8 each plus shipping.
Like the pilot says, "sit back, relax, and enjoy the flight."
When you're on one of those Disneyland boats, it takes you where Disney wants you to go. That's why you got on. And so you are lulled, a spectator, merely a tourist.
So different, isn't it, from driving yourself, choosing your own route and owning what comes of it?
How long have you been along for the ride? When is your turn to actually drive?
This is a much more stable response than pushing coming to shoving, because shoving often leads to something unsustainable.
Hugging is a surprising and difficult response to pushing, but it changes the trajectory, doesn't it?
Every committee or organization has at least one well-meaning person who is pushing to make things more average.
"On behalf of the masses, the uncommitted, the ones who don't care, we need to dumb this down, smooth out the edges and make it more average. We need to oversimplify it, make it a bit banal, stupid even. If we don't, then some people won't get the joke, won't be satisfied, or worse, complain."
And, by amplifying the voice of the lizard brain, he gets under our skin and we back off, at least a little. We make the work a little more average and a little worse.
This is the studio executive who demands a trite plot, with the usual stereotypes and tropes, played by the usual reliable actor types.
This is the record producer who wants the new song to sound a whole lot like the last song.
This is the NGO executive who fears that the new campaign will offend some minor donors...
Yes, it's true that the remarkable, edgy stuff we wanted to make wasn't going to be embraced by everyone. But everyone is rarely the point any more.
In the service of honest communication, perhaps the one who makes things worse should acknowledge that this is what he does for a living. That way, if we want things to be a little more average, we'll know who to ask.
Successful freelancers need to charge at least double the hourly rate that they'd be happy earning doing full time work. (In many fields, it's more like 4 or 5x).
And they need to spend at least half their time getting better at their craft (and helping the market understand and appreciate what they do).
Your mileage may vary, but one sure route to becoming an unhappy freelancer is charging just enough and hoping that the low price will keep you busy all the time.
[If you're a freelancer with a career or marketing question, I'm recording a course on this topic and will be including reader questions as part of it. The form is open until tomorrow, Monday, at midnight. Thanks.]
Today is Pi day, the 14th day of the 3rd month of the fifteenth year... 3.1415
Pi is our most famous irrational number. Not irrational in the sense that it's a foolish argument, a form of wishing for one thing while doing another. No, pi is irrational in a magical, beautiful sense. It can't be cropped off and fit into a box. The closer you look at pi, the more you see, forever.
And that sort of irrational magic is at the heart of our best work. Meeting spec works fine as long as you're the only person who has to meet spec. But in any competitive environment, fitting into a box does us little good.
To be transcendent and irrational is to always have a few more digits to spare, to demand that you not be rounded off and filed away. To be human.
Money owed accrues interest. Banks and credit card companies thrive on this. The borrower gets to keep using the money, and the lender ends up with more in the end.
Apologies owed, on the other hand, accrue nothing whatsoever of value, to either side.
Forgiving a financial debt costs your balance sheet. Forgiving an owed apology frees you to be generous again.
We really don't understand privilege until we've lost it.
It's pretty easy to criticize or misunderstand those that complain about privilege (of any kind), but in fact, we have no idea what it is to be in those shoes, not right this minute.