Eric Nehrlich, Unrepentant Generalist » people

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The Anthropology of Innovation panel

Wednesday, September 19th, 2012

Last week, the Computer History Museum hosted a panel on “The Anthropology of Innovation”. I had to attend since I’m a fan of anthropology, I’m fascinated by corporate culture and how it leads to goals like innovation, and the panel featured Genevieve Bell of Intel, who Jofish and Janet interned with in Portland one summer. I discovered once I got there that the panel also featured George Kembel, a co-founder of the Stanford d-school, which is an institution I admire. I wasn’t as impressed with the third panelist, Laura Tyson, despite her impressive resume including being Clinton’s Chief Economic Advisor

This post is mostly a transcription of my scribbled notes so I have a searchable way of referring to them in the future. It will be even less coherent than my normal posts, as my notes are mostly quotes I found interesting. C’est la vie.

Gillian Tett, the moderator, is an anthropology major turned journalist. She started off the evening with a few remarks on her observations of innovation in society and in companies:

  • Every society has a cognitive map.

  • “The blank spaces are important.” I think this referred to the idea that the things we don’t talk about provide clues to the assumptions that are taken for granted and could be fertile areas for questioning.
  • Companies are organized by silos – increasingly interconnected but also increasingly fragmented
  • Innovation is about silo busting.

George Kembel then spoke from his perspective as a former entrepreneur turned educator.

  • He said innovation is “thinking freely in the presence of constraints”. The constraints are important as they bound the problem and create the opportunity for innovation. No constraints means you could do anything.

  • To answer the question of “how do you innovate?”, he observed that design thinking is not just about designing products – you can be creative in everything you do, whether it’s designing business models, new processes, etc.
  • He thinks of d.school as a “school crossing” where they can integrate different points of views, existing outside of the traditional “schools” of engineering, science, arts, etc.
  • He mentioned that when they started, they were looking for faculty support for their interdisciplinary school, and they had expected the young up-and-coming professors to be their advocates. But those younger professors were all trying to establish themselves in their field and earn tenure, so they couldn’t take risks by going outside their field. Surprisingly, it ended up being the long-established tenured professors who were more willing to take the risks of crossing between fields. Interesting observation of incentives and constraints there.
  • Pay more attention to people, not technology.
  • When you’re not sure of what to do, try lots of experiments.
  • On the topic of how the d.school encourages innovation, he said that the focus is on the student as an innovator – it’s getting the person to innovate, not about creating a process of innovation. Teaching students to break barriers, to find new ways of looking at the problem, that’s where the innovation will come from. The teacher does not have all the answers, but is more of a coach and facilitator. I like the human-centered approach, which recognizes that each person is dealing with unique situations, so no standard process will work for all of those situations, but teaching the person techniques will allow them to address their own individual situation.
  • One suggestion was for students to get a “shared experience of the user whose life they wanted to make better”, as “the biggest barriers to innovation are our own biases and assumptions.” A great story here – the man leading the GE MRI division was really proud of the great technology he had built that saved lives. After going to the d.school, he realized he had never seen an MRI machine in a hospital, so he visited his local hospital. He saw the machine and it was glorious and a shining beacon of technology. And then he saw the little kid who was the next patient, who shrieked in terror at this ginormous scary instrument and sobbed and wouldn’t let go of her parents. And he realized that technology wasn’t the only factor to consider. After some more work, he developed a program with the hospitals where they turned going to the MRI into a camping adventure, with camp counselors instead of nurses, and with the MRI machine decorated as a tent for them to hide in. This program, while it was better for the kids, also improved his bottom-line instrument throughput, as the kids were eager to get in and didn’t hold up the process. Nifty story to demonstrate how a user-focused approach can lead to breakthroughs in how you perceive a problem.
  • To innovate, you must be “willing to invite discomfort into your life” as you realize your biases and assumptions might be wrong. “Don’t just accept the problem as it’s framed.”
  • “Our experts are our liabilities”
  • On K-12 education, he said the question isn’t how to teach innovation, it’s how to preserve the creativity of kids – they have it, we just have to not crush it out of them.

Genevieve Bell’s comments:

  • She started with the great story of how when she was hired at Intel, she asked her manager what she was supposed to study. Her manager said “Women.” Genevieve said “Um, women? You mean, all 3.2 billion of them?” “Yes, we don’t think we understand women.” “Okay….anything else?” “ROW” “What does ROW mean?” “Rest of World.” “So….World in this case means?” “The US” “Oh, okay, so everybody on the planet outside the US, plus women. No problem!”

  • One of her rallying cries is “That may be your world view, but it’s not everybody’s”
  • She said one of the reasons she was successful was “sheer stubbornness”, and that “people measure me by my being difficult”. One such story was where she told Paul Otellini, the CEO of Intel, that he was just wrong at a meeting. She could feel everybody around her internally gasping at her audacity, but Otellini asked her why, and she provided him with her data and supporting arguments and changed his mind. Yay anthropology!

I submitted a question that was selected by the panel moderator which was that in an increasingly specialized world where companies are looking for a specific skill set, and with innovation depending on busting silos, where does the generalist fit in? Genevieve had a great response, which was that a “generalist” adds value if they can “curate the conversation from multiple points of view”. She suggested that I was limiting myself by calling myself a generalist, and needed to re-brand and re-imagine my role to create an specialization that companies would value (e.g. “curator”). George said something similar, where he recommended thinking of myself as an integrator, not as a person outside of specialization. Another point he brought up when I approached him after the panel was that the idea of being T-shaped, with both a broad awareness and a deep area of specialization, is somewhat outmoded – we actually need more people who can integrate different viewpoints by having a certain level of depth in multiple fields, rather than just a shallow awareness in several and a deep expertise in one.

The final discussion was interesting, where an audience member asked about how to apply these ideas to health care. Laura suggested taking George’s viewpoint of focusing on the patient, and re-centering everything in the business around the patient. Instead of having specializations where each doctor was only responsible for their area leading to patients getting passed all around the hospital from doctor to doctor, re-design the whole process around making the patient experience better. George expanded upon that by suggesting that we don’t think of patients as sick, but as healthy people who are temporarily un-well, and thinking of medicine as the process to accelerate them back to their normal selves as quickly as possible.

Genevieve then blew my mind by asking if we could take a similar approach to government, where we put the citizen in the middle and organize the government around enabling the citizen. She didn’t exactly know what that would mean, and it depends on the idea that citizens embrace their role as representing their country. People would have to go beyond thinking of themselves as tax-payers who get services from their government (police, army, social security, etc), towards being citizens who embrace their role as representing the government. It was an interesting thought-experiment and a great way to end the night.

Nifty ideas all around. Fun thought-provoking evening, and I’ll have to think more about my generalist branding given the feedback from the panel.

The limits of rationality

Wednesday, September 12th, 2012

I’ve started occasionally listening to Rationally Speaking podcast, a production of the New York City Skeptics. What’s funny is that part of the reason I listen to it is that I get into arguments (in my head) with the hosts of the show, who are dedicated to the idea that rationality will lead people to better lives. One of the hosts, Julia Galef, has even started a Center for Applied Rationality to teach people to think more rationally and thereby improve themselves.

And I get that. Heck, I wrote a post eight years ago where I say that “one of the greatest problems facing this country right now is the lack of critical thinking skills. People don’t know how to evaluate information.” And I still believe that critical thinking is an important skill that more people should develop.

But I also have learned to recognize the limits of rationality in driving consensus and agreement. In particular, if two people are starting with a different set of assumptions, no amount of rationality will get them to an agreement – they are living in two different worlds. A mathematical analogy would be the difference between Euclidean and non-Euclidean geometry – the system of proof is the same, but you get different results if you change Euclid’s parallel postulate.

I’ve observed many instances of this over the years, where two people are trying to convince each other with logical, rational arguments, and are unable to do so because they don’t realize they are starting with differing assumptions. They are muttering “Why can’t you be rational about this?” but they need a common starting point or set of axioms before the rules of rationality can help. I’ve touched on this before in regard to the multiplicity of goals one can design a system for and how a religious system is optimizing for different goals than a rationalist system. That doesn’t mean things are hopeless when assumptions differ: Getting to Yes is all about working to shift people’s assumptions so that an agreement can be found.

I also think that rationality is often ineffective, despite being “right”. George Lakoff suggested in 2004 that the Democrats were making that fatal mistake – that “if you just tell people the facts, that should be enough – the truth shall set you free. All people are fully rational, so if you tell them the truth, they should reach the right conclusions. That, of course, has been a disaster. ” All the rational and well-constructed arguments in the world are not as effective as a well-constructed story in getting people to change their behavior, as described in Made to Stick.

So while I applaud those who champion the cause of rationality and critical thinking, like the Rationally Speaking podcast hosts, I think that reason is not enough (hence my mental sniping back at the podcast when I listen – to be fair, I’m setting them up as a straw man in this post). Even in a rational world, people will have different assumptions necessitating a discussion of what is truly axiomatic. And for all of our striving to be rational, it’s much more effective to convince people with a story than with a rational argument, because the story resets their assumptions and encourages their brain to fill in the blanks in a different way.

To tie this back to yesterday’s post on Principled Leadership, a fully rational approach to running a company would be having a strict hierarchy and process, with the reasons for each optimized decision laid out for employees. What I like about leaders modeling guiding principles is that it demonstrates a way of driving a common set of assumptions across the company, and providing stories that people can use to drive their own behavior. It may not be strictly “rational” or optimal, but it may be more effective.

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drive their own behavior: I heard a story at one training on purchase orders where Patrick rejected a purchase order for $2,000 because it hadn’t been taken out to bid and there was no way for him to know that Google was getting a competitive price. Let me tell you that every time I looked at a purchase order after that, I paid attention to whether Google was getting a good deal, no matter how small the purchase.

Principled Leadership

Monday, September 10th, 2012

I like thinking about how to scale a company without making it feel like a big company. The standard way to scale a company is to use hierarchy and process to manage the larger scale – big decisions get passed up the chain to an appropriate decision maker, and little decisions are handled by a process that has been standardized.

But I have always disliked this approach, as it removes the initiative of smart and independent thinkers at all levels of the organization. Why hire smart people if you won’t let them think for themselves? I have long been fascinated by different management structures or bossless companies that trust their employees to make the right decisions. None of these organizations have been proven to scale past a few hundred people, though.

So how can we build companies that give autonomy to small teams while scaling up to thousands of people? Or to put a finer point on it, how can Google really be run like a startup?

As I watch the leaders at Google, I’ve realized that part of the answer is that the leaders tend to be consistent and principled. I work in the finance department, and Patrick Pichette, our CFO, is a master of this. He tends to ask the same set of questions:

  • How much investment will you need?

  • What does Google get out of that investment? (Is it revenue, cost savings, user growth?)
  • What do I have to believe? (what assumptions are you making to model the returns on the investment?)
  • How will you measure success? (what metrics will you show me in three months to demonstrate you’re on the right track?)

That’s it. He’s so consistent that I feel like I can project his voice into a meeting, and so I have become an extension of him within the org. I understand the principles he uses to make decisions and can therefore give others a good sense of how he’ll react before they go into a meeting. I can also anticipate the questions he is likely to ask, and make sure that my team has good answers beforehand so we’re not scrambling afterwards.

What’s interesting about this to me from an organizational design perspective is that Google is not depending on process or hierarchy to guide me. The thing that keeps the finance org aligned is a consistent set of principles modeled by the CFO, who then trusts employees to use their judgment in applying those principles. That is an organizational model that can scale.

And when I thought about the rest of Google, I realized that’s a lot of what makes it work – each of us Googlers has an internal model of key decision makers (Larry Page, Patrick Pichette, Nikesh Arora, Susan Wojcicki, Jeff Huber, etc.) and has a good idea of how each of them would react to a proposal. That enables us to make decisions without having to pass them up the hierarchy and without having an explicit process, and still be confident that the decisions will be consistent with the corporate direction.

I think this is how a lot of other great companies have worked. Whether it’s Walt Disney or Steve Jobs or Herb Kelleher at Southwest, their people knew how their leaders would react and could act more independently because of that knowledge. It’s not quite a cult of personality, because that would imply that the followers have no independent thought and are only doing what they’re told. It’s more like teaching a team a playbook and letting them figure out how to apply it in their particular situation. I also read once that the military does a good job of this, making sure that everybody knows the overall strategic goals for an engagement, such that if the situation changes, they don’t blindly follow their orders to “Take that hill!” if it doesn’t help with the overall strategic goal (some Googling reveals this is called Commander’s Intent).

I like this idea of scaling by trusting your people to do the right thing while not hog-tying them with a process. It lets them adapt the leaders’ guiding principles to their individual situations such that they have autonomy, but without having the organization dissolve into chaos. It does have the challenge that it won’t work if you have bad people in the org, but my guess is that pretty much no management tactics work if you have bad people – they will circumvent your process.

Anyway. I’ve been mulling this over for a while, and figured it’d be a good topic for my first blog post in nearly a year. Work has actually been calm for a couple weeks, so I have finally overcome my activation energy to post. I need to make the time to do it more often, as I have dozens of post ideas floating around, and I like myself better when I’m writing regularly.

Encouraging useful failure

Sunday, November 13th, 2011

One particular issue I’ve been thinking about with startup vs. big company culture (and that is referred to in a comment on my last post as well as comments over on Facebook) is how to encourage useful failure – failure where you learn something and then apply what you learned to improve next time.

This sort of grit to struggle through failure (what Seth Godin calls “The Dip”) to find the next level of success is rare in a big company. As is typical for me these days, I would argue this is an issue of incentive alignment.

At a startup, walking away from a failure means quitting and finding a new job, whereas pushing through to find the bigger success (what Marc Andreesen has called product-market fit) has the potential for tremendous upside in the form of stock options. The risks are higher, but it’s worth it.

Big companies and their annual performance reviews tend to reward piling up little successes rather than long struggles with a big success at the end. Sticking with a project that isn’t working can lead to a bad performance rating, so people look for a quick transfer to a different project where they can ride on somebody else’s coattails to success and keep their ratings up. Those that do stick around and try to turn a failing project around rarely benefit from the upside if they succeed – maybe they get one good rating that doesn’t make up for the previous poor ones.

At an organizational level, it’s also easier for the big company to walk away from a “failure” because the company has other projects and revenue streams. As The Only Sustainable Edge points out, companies that only do one thing (e.g. startups) are driven to be the best in the world at it because they have nothing else to fall back on. That lack of a safety net drives further achievement than they would achieve if they could give up more easily.

Another perspective comes from this description of successful startups from Glenn Kelman (CEO of Redfin): “They weren’t afraid of failure, and they didn’t “pivot” when faced with their first setback”. And sometimes by having the grit to stick with a project that they were initially doing for their own passion without regard for commercial potential, they found a way to inordinate success.

How can we instill that kind of grit and passion into a big company? I can think of a few cases where a strong leader has bet the company on a change of direction (e.g. Bill Gates’s Internet memo, Steve Jobs turning Apple into a consumer electronics company, Jeff Bezos mandating that Amazon transform its infrastructure into a service-oriented architecture, Larry Page trying to focus Google on social), but this can also backfire (e.g. Elop’s “oil platform” memo). And these cases are more about a top-down change in direction rather than creating a new culture.

On the topic of encouraging useful failure, I could see some ways of trying to design an incentive system that would encourage people in that direction. Unfortunately, I think the people who work at a big company would rarely agree to such an incentive system. And in my experience, the people who would like such a system will try to do the right thing regardless of the incentive system.

So to re-state the question in a different way – is it possible to create more “startup” people who are willing to take chances and struggle through failure? I wonder if it would involve a re-design of our education system – the US education system is designed to reward people who follow directions and respond to incremental incentives (aka grades), and punishes those who fail even intermittently. Could any incentive system be powerful enough to overcome a lifetime of cultural conditioning?

Hard questions. I don’t have any answers. And, obviously, a lot of digressions. But I’ll keep exploring these sorts of topics over the upcoming weeks. Let me know if you have any thoughts.

Understanders vs. Fixers

Sunday, June 26th, 2011

I was having a conversation with a friend the other day about what we thrived on in a job, and it was interesting to see how our perspectives differed. She talked about the thrill of fixing a problem, of figuring out what was happening, and designing a process or system to solve the problem forever. I talked about how I love the challenge of understanding how all the different parts of a system fit together and figuring out what actually matters. The conversation was a good reminder for me of how important it is to have the right mix of people to get things done in an organization.

I’ve been thinking about this recently as I start a new role at Google where I am trying to articulate to my new team the value that I bring. My strength is as a systems analyst – understanding all of the different parts of a complex system, seeing how they inter-relate, and being able to describe the levers that drive the whole system. This applies whether the system is conversation, corporate culture, or the intricacies of Google’s revenue. I believe that my ability to both understand the big picture as well as the details allows me to extract insights that other people could not from just one level. And I am driven to keep on poking at the system until I feel I understand which stimuli will provoke which responses. The collection of observations on this blog over the years is a reflection of my drive to understand.

However, I struggle in taking the understanding I develop and doing something about it. I can understand how the system is put together and where the friction in the system is, but not how to fix those things. Part of understanding the whole system is understanding why different design decisions were made in the construction of that system, and that understanding sometimes makes it difficult for me to envision a different way of doing things that would solve the issues I identify.

My friend is more pragmatic as she is more interested in fixing important things that are broken. She has worked in a couple different industries, and in each case, it was more about identifying the systemic things wrong with her company, and figuring out how to make them work better by instituting a new process or a new system element. She also has a good understanding of systems, as she wouldn’t be able to fix things effectively if she didn’t. But for her, it’s the fixing that matters, not the understanding.

I think both roles have value to an organization. And a particularly good combination is to pair an understander with a fixer so that the system insights that the understander develops can be fed to the fixer. An understander without a fixer identifies problems but those problems linger since nothing is being put in place to counter them. A fixer without an understander is sometimes fixing symptoms rather than the underlying problems that are driving problems in the system. Together, though, they can be a truly powerful force.

P.S. There are a few other themes inspired here that I’m going to set aside for a future post:

  • Good managers understand the strengths and motivations of their people such that they can (a) keep their people happy by giving them the types of problems that interest them and (b) combine their people in ways that complement each other.
  • The “fixer” trait fascinates me because I don’t have it. I know many people who see something wrong in the world and are not satisfied until it is corrected (most hackers are like this). I figure out what’s wrong and then work around it, because changing myself is easier than changing the world. But I’m working to develop this trait.
  • There is probably a Myers-Briggs or other personality trait that I am describing here – if you happen to know what archetypes I’m describing, please share in the comments.

Incremental steps towards uselessness

Tuesday, June 15th, 2010

Last night, I attended the Mountain View Linchpin Meetup, inspired by Seth Godin’s blog post (speaking of which, I need to review Godin’s book Linchpin at some point). Spending an evening with a group of people following their passion inspired me to take a swing at restarting this blog yet again.

Today’s topic – the danger of the slippery slope, as represented by me having given up on following Facebook, or my RSS feeds, or Twitter, mostly.

Why?

Because there’s too much to follow in each of them. It takes too much time each day to stay “up-to-date”. And once I fall behind, it’s hopeless to catch up, and I have trouble letting the bits go, so I just give up entirely.

How did I get here?

By being tempted by the deceptive value of “just one more”. On Twitter, when I met or heard about somebody, I would look at their Twitter feed and if they looked marginally interesting, I’d start following them. And that was my mistake. I was comparing the value of following their Twitter feed to nothing – so long as I liked even a couple entries in the feed, I added it. But that doesn’t properly value my time – the time it takes to read those extra Tweets adds up. And because I have not been ruthlessly curating the people I follow, I’m not excited to skim through all the dross to find the gems that can appear in my Twitter stream.

In other words, a number of thoughtless incremental decisions have led me to a situation where the entire system has become useless.

The same was true of my RSS feeds – once it got to the point where it felt like a burden to keep up because I’d added too many low-marginal-value feeds, then I stopped checking, even though there are still several truly amazing people whose work I want to track.

I’ve noticed the same trend for me at work over the years. I’ll agree to take on a “quick” task, 10-30 minutes, because how can I turn down being helpful if it will take me less than a half hour? And yet, those “quick” tasks, in aggregate, add up to a significant burden.

What does this mean?

For me, it means I need to re-examine the choices I make. I need to realize that adding even a seemingly trivial task or input to my life can, over time, add up to quite a drag. I need to learn that unless my answer is “Hell, yeah!”, my answer should be no. I need to be stop wasting my limited energy on small things, and focus on what’s important.

Of course, that means deciding what’s important for myself, which is a whole separate problem, but let’s start by clearing out the unimportant stuff out first.

Thanks again to all the great people I met last night, and let’s see if I can stop making excuses and start writing blog posts again.

NurtureShock, by Po Bronson and Ashley Merriman

Thursday, February 4th, 2010

Book website
Amazon link

I’ve liked Po Bronson’s other books, like What should I do with my life?. I also really liked his New York magazine article called The Power (and Peril) of Praising Your Kids, which described Carol Dweck’s research into the fixed vs. growth mindset of children, and what a tremendous difference it made to praise effort rather than innate ability. So I’ve been meaning to read this book, which summarizes several similar topics (the praise article is the first chapter), and finally got it from the library a couple weeks ago.

The book covers several topics where common parenting assumptions do not match what science has learned over the past couple decades. The praise chapter describes how self-esteem is actually undermined by trying to build it up. There is a chapter on how squeezing in more activities and studying harder is causing kids to lose sleep, which has startling impacts on health and even intelligence (an hour of sleep a night separated A students from D students). Other chapters cover questions about race, honesty, the pace of cognitive development in children, self-control, and socialization.

One particularly non-intuitive point for me was that “to an adolescent, arguing is the opposite of lying”. Parents hate arguments, finding them stressful, disrespectful and destructive, and don’t appreciate their kids questioning their judgment. The interesting result was that kids that respect their parents are the ones most likely to argue with them – the rest “just pretended to go along with their parents’ wishes, but then they did what they wanted to do anyway”. In other words, parents that shut down conflict and argument ended up promoting lying because the kids didn’t feel bound by arbitrary rules that made no sense to them. But when the kids were allowed to have their say, and where parents could explain why the rules made sense, then the kids could be honest and ask for what they wanted, rather than feeling they had to lie and work around the rules. As an aside, substituting manager and employee for parent and kid in this paragraph illustrates the connection between management and parenting (in case you were wondering why I’d be reading a parenting book).

I think NurtureShock is a nice summary of interesting results from the new “science of kids”. I don’t know if there are any mind-blowing revelations, but I’m definitely questioning my instincts about praise and other topics as a result. I recommend going and checking out the list of all posts and articles the authors have published on the subject, including links to the articles listed above and many others, to see if you’d be interested in the book.

Coaching and feedback

Saturday, January 30th, 2010

In my last post, I talked about getting the reps to improve oneself on desired skills. But it’s difficult to make the time for practice, especially for deliberate practice where we are always dancing on the edge of failure. And I think that’s where I think Coyle’s observation that coaching is an integral part of talent development comes in.

One of the keys to being able to stay in the productive zone of deliberate practice is to create a tight feedback loop. Deliberate practice is about pushing oneself beyond one’s capability, failing and then figuring out how to do it right. However, a key aspect of this is getting immediate feedback on both failure and on getting it right. My theory is that part of mastery is repeating techniques until they are built into the unconscious part of the brain, and getting to that point requires consistent and useful feedback.

Fast feedback is also essential. Imagine a thought experiment where you had to wait a minute to find out if your previous action had worked or failed – you would never be able to stay in a zone of productivity because in that minute, you’d get distracted, and maybe even start on a different task (this is the experience of software engineers in languages without a REPL). To keep yourself driving forward, and experimenting with new techniques that may or may not work, instant feedback is a necessity. And that’s what a good coach can provide.

Coaches provide the immediate feedback necessary to stay in the mode of deliberate practice. This is especially necessary at the beginning of the path towards mastery, before the student has developed their own self-awareness so they can detect their own errors. Coyle described two researches watching John Wooden coach the UCLA basketball team; they were surprised to find that so little of his communication was in the form of praise or disapproval, but instead 75% was in the form of information transfer. He was watching his players and offering them instant feedback on what they were doing right and wrong. That accelerated their path to mastery, as they did not have to do trial-and-error experimentation to learn what worked and what didn’t.

One key aspect of coaching is that it’s not just objective feedback, but also why things happened. I could learn how to shoot a basketball better by just shooting a lot of baskets, where my objective feedback would be whether I made the basket or not. But when I missed a basket, I wouldn’t know why. And when I made a basket, I wouldn’t know how so I couldn’t repeat it. I would try a number of different things, and only a few of them would work, so I’d be wasting a lot of time in experimentation. However, if I had a coach, they could watch me, tell me what I was doing right, and more importantly, why it worked, so I could start to internalize the correct techniques. My improvement would happen much faster, because I would be able to integrate the “story” of the right way to do things into my self story.

As an aside, I was thinking about this last week during a discussion on a random Google mailing list discussing an ethnographer’s observations about Google in China. A couple engineers were dismissive, saying that objective data was better than these subjective stories. My point was that these stories help us interpret the data – data can tell us that market share is changing or that Chinese users are using instant messenger over Gmail, but social scientists can help tell the story of _why_ these trends are happening.

I think the other aspect of deliberate practice that a coach can help with is in helping with the motivation necessary to stay on the edge of failure. It’s so much easier to keep on doing what we are already good at than it is to consciously decide to do something that we know we’ll fail at. So having somebody there to encourage us to keep going past our existing competencies is helpful. Even in something as prosaic as weightlifting, I will never be as strong as I was in grad school, when I had a lifting partner who would push me to lift more than I thought I could – and it turned out I could do it. Now when I go to the gym, I don’t push myself anywhere near that hard, and therefore am not getting anywhere near the benefits.

Note that both feedback and motivation will eventually be internalized, and have to be internalized if one is to achieve mastery. Once I reach a certain point in skill development, I know what I’m doing right and wrong, and what I have to do to correct my mistakes. I also can get to the point where I don’t need external motivation because I am doing the skill for myself and can see how my practice and mistakes lead to improvement. But, boy, it’s difficult to get there, and having a coach to help with those aspects make it easier, especially at the start.

I realized as I was writing this that one of the challenges for me in my quest to become a generalist is the lack of coaching. There is nobody that can offer me instant feedback on what I’m doing, so I am in the inefficient mode of trial-and-error experimentation. And while I have been fairly committed to this path for several years now, it’s still difficult for me as I have few role models (Jerry Weinberg notwithstanding), and little in the way of formal encouragement. I don’t have a career path that I’m following, and while my position at work is enhanced by my generalist skills, they are not formally recognized, which is frustrating. I’m not sure what to do about this, but perhaps being aware of the difficulty will let me at least address the problems more directly.

Sorry for the long post – I originally had planned to split this post into one on tightening the feedback loop and another on coaching, but I feel like they work better together. Coyle’s framework is a useful way for me to think about these questions of mastery, and it integrates well with my previous thoughts on the subject. It also helps me to recognize that lessons might be the way to get me started on a new skill, rather than beating myself up for not having the discipline to start something on my own. Food for thought.

Getting the reps

Thursday, January 28th, 2010

Seen on Twitter: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Aristotle

Both Drive and The Talent Code make the same point: Becoming a master isn’t about natural talent or improbable achievements – it’s about getting a little bit better every day, and practicing until what is now challenging becomes unconsciously automatic.

I like Pink’s 2 questions: “What’s your sentence?” (in other words, what do I want to be known for?) and “Am I better today than yesterday?” The first question must be answered before the second can be asked; otherwise, the definition of “better” is undefined.

Once you’ve decided on the answer to the first question, Coyle’s book provides a guide as to how to execute on the second question of getting better. It’s about having the emotional desire (what Coyle calls ignition) to spend the 10,000 hours necessary for expertise in deep practice. To put it in colloquial terms, it’s about getting the reps. We can’t improve without practicing the skills we want to acquire and building them deep into our neural system.

I should note that it’s not simply about repetitively practicing skills – it’s about continually pushing the edges of what we can do so that we can continue improving. In weight lifting, if you can slam through your reps without slowing down, you’re not getting stronger; strength is built by pushing the muscles to the point where they slightly tear, so that they get re-built stronger. Pushing oneself to that edge is difficult – I was only in that zone when I had a lifting partner (which I’ll address in a followup post about the benefits of coaching).

I don’t feel I have good answers to Pink’s questions at the moment. While the tagline of “Unrepentant Generalist” is descriptive, it doesn’t make a good answer to Pink’s first question in that it’s difficult to say what I should be practicing on a daily basis. I have a number of 2,000 hour skills, but I think it’s clear that 5 sets of 2,000 hours is not the same as 10,000 hours. So I’ve been reflecting on what the skills I need to be practicing on a daily basis are. Candidates include communication, synthesis and pattern building, which are all skills exercised by blogging, hence my attempts to get back into blogging regularly.

I leave you with these questions: what skills are you getting the reps in right now, where you’re pushing yourself to improve and get better each day? And are those skills the ones that are part of your vision of who you would like to be? And if not, what are you going to do about that? I wasn’t happy with my answers a couple weeks ago, but I think I’m starting to move in the right direction by blogging more, and spending more time reading books. Reinforcing these habits will hopefully move me in the direction of excellence, as described by the Aristotle quote above. We’ll see.

P.S. Wow, I can’t believe I didn’t reference this 2007 post on mastery, since it hits several of the same points – I discovered it while working on my next blog post but decided to add the link here, as it’s entirely relevant.

Drive, by Daniel Pink

Wednesday, January 20th, 2010

Drive book website
Amazon link

I really liked Pink’s TED talk on the “surprising science of motivation” where he says “There’s a mismatch between what science knows and what business does”. In particular, the compensation and motivation strategies currently used by businesses have been shown to undermine motivation rather than enhance it. So I’ve been interested in reading the book-length version of his argument, and managed to snag it from the library soon after release.

Alas, there’s not much more in the book than what’s in the TED video. So go watch that. Or read his “cocktail party summary”:

When it comes to motivation, there’s a gap between what science knows and what business does. Our current business operating system–which is built around external, carrot-and-stick motivators–doesn’t work and often does harm. We need an upgrade. And the science shows the way. This new approach has three essential elements: 1. Autonomy – the desire to direct our own lives. 2. Mastery — the urge to get better and better at something that matters. 3. Purpose — the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.

I don’t have much to add beyond that, except to cheer him on. I think that creating new organizational cultures that trust people rather than processes is a goal towards which we should all be aspiring, even if I have no idea how to make that happen.

I also really liked his 2 questions video. The 2 questions:

  • What is your sentence? In other words, if you were forced to summarize your life’s work and accomplishments in one sentence, what would that sentence be? Distilling it to one sentence forces you to pick what your overall purpose is, rather than trying to do lots of things at once (says the generalist).
  • Was I better today than yesterday? After the sentence helps you define your purpose, each day is an opportunity to move closer to that purpose. Having a daily check-in forces us to question every day whether we’re making progress towards our goals. Or to put it another way, using a quote I found on Twitter, “If it’s important enough to you, you’ll find a way. If not, you’ll find an excuse.”

The weekday posts are going to be less thoughtful, but, hey, I’ve got a year’s backlog of books to review, so I can crank those out during the week, and hopefully I can continue digging into more meaty topics on the weekend.

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