Archive for the ‘people’ Category

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.

Learning from jerks

Saturday, January 16th, 2010

As usual, it’s been a couple months since I posted, so I’m lowering the standards again, and posting a ramble through some topics that are on my mind this morning. I want to get back into the habit of posting, although that will depend on me actually taking a stand on work-life balance, which I have woefully failed to do for a year and a half, so no promises.

It’s interesting reading Clay Shirky’s rant about how women should “behave like arrogant self-aggrandizing jerks” when I identify more with the women in his rant than the men.

My 2004 rant about self promotion describes that jerk behavior and how I don’t want to be a jerk like that, but in the several years since then, I continue to struggle with under-selling myself and the impact that has on my career.

It’s particularly funny at the moment since a couple people in my group at work have started a self-deprecation watch on me and call me out when I dismiss my work as I habitually do. I need to learn to value myself more, or at least correctly, rather than under-valuing what I do because it seems easy to me.

I think there’s another element in play that Shirky alludes to, which is the willingness to make mistakes. Carol Dweck’s research, as described by Po Bronson, describes two different viewpoints towards approaching the world: one is that our skills are innate, genetic gifts (the “fixed” view), and the other is that we can improve anything we do with focused effort (the “growth” view). The two viewpoints have very different reactions to failure; in the first, failure is a sign that our innate talents are insufficient so we should give up, whereas in the second, failure is a sign that we need to try harder or try a new approach. Dweck’s research indicates that children with the first viewpoint tend to take fewer risks, as each risk has the potential to be a failure, exposing their limits.

More broadly, I think there’s a spectrum of comfort with failure, and how willing I am to take on tasks based on what I know before I start:

  1. Tasks where I know I can deliver the desired results
  2. Tasks where I should be able to deliver the results, but there is some amount of uncertainty in the outcome
  3. Tasks where I don’t think I’ll be able to deliver the results, but hope that I can learn enough on the way to make it work – this is like Shirky’s brazen claim that he could do drafting well when he had no experience
  4. Tasks where I won’t be able to deliver (aka outright lying)

My tendency has been to focus only on category 1 – being unwilling to commit to doing anything where I wasn’t sure of the results so that I would be seen as absolutely reliable.

However, reliable isn’t good enough. People who are willing to aim high, even at the risk of failing, attain more than the people like me who only attempt what is already in their grasp. My Columbia mentor, Jon Williams, once told me that if I weren’t failing spectacularly at work at least once or twice a year, I was not pushing myself enough. That means taking on more of those tasks in category 3 where it’s a big risk, but it will push me to achieve more than I would have otherwise.

Of course, creating a work environment where people can make mistakes and learn from them is still not the norm, as Scott Berkun described in a recent blog post. It’s a challenge to design a flexible culture where taking risks is encouraged so long as learning is taking place, a challenge which is often ignored if not completely unacknowledged. But there are people out there thinking about this – I’m reading a book by Roger Martin called The Design of Business which describes companies like RIM, P&G, and Herman Miller to see how they have infused an iterative design approach into their cultures.

So it’s a two part problem to encourage more of this sort of risk-taking ambitious behavior.

  • Changing the people to be more like “jerks” in pushing them towards those category 3 tasks, as Shirky is hoping to encourage, and I’m starting to work towards in myself.
  • Changing the environment – creating companies and support structures where failure is seen as a badge of honor rather than, well, a failure. It means moving more towards a world based on Carol Dweck’s “growth” theory, where failure is seen as the path to improvement, rather than the “fixed” theory which says that we succeed or fail based on our innate abilities.

Figuring out concrete steps towards that second world is something I’d love to work on, if I could only figure out where to begin.

P.S. I’m amused to realize that the books I currently have out from the library are all in this theme of management and motivation: Daniel Pink’s Drive and Johnny Bunko Career Guide, Po Bronson’s NurtureShock, Mintzberg’s Managing, and the aforementioned Roger Martin’s The Design of Business. Now I just need to make the time to read them all.

AYE Conference Notes

Thursday, November 12th, 2009

While it’s still fresh in my mind, I wanted to jot down some passing observations about my experience at the Amplifying Your Effectiveness conference.

  • From the warm-up tutorial, it was interesting seeing how some of the personality preferences were demonstrated by Don Gray and Steve Smith.
    • I particularly liked the I vs. E demonstration – they asked the I’s and E’s to meet up and decide how many people constituted a “large” group. The consensus of the I’s was 8-10 people, the consensus of the E’s was 50. Although I tend to be an I, I had a slightly different take – the group feels large to me if there are more people I don’t know than people I know – so if I’m in a group with 5 strangers, it feels large, but a group of 40 people where I know 30 is fine. And one of the nice things is that as the conference has continued, I have grown more comfortable with the folks here so the groups feel smaller.
    • Another nice demonstration was asking people to situate themselves on a continuum between “Work before Play” and “Always Play Time”. The J’s tended towards the “Work Before Play” end and P’s on the other side. Sadly, despite identifying as a P, I had to place myself more towards “Work Before Play” given my total lack of work-life balance at the moment.
    • One interesting thing for me was that when I took the quick preference test, I identified as an INFP, instead of the INTP I used to. But when they described the F’s as making value-based judgments and thinking about people consequences, and the T’s making “objective” judgments, I had to admit that I’m leaning more towards the F side these days (as evidenced by the air quotes I put around “objective”).
    • The demonstration clinched it for me: they had T’s and F’s decide on how they would execute a layoff of 12% of a company’s workforce. The T’s said use a rating system, cut the bottom 12%, and done. The F’s talked about a number of different factors (key skill sets to keep, personal circumstances), and gave consideration to how to keep the remaining 88% of the company motivated in the face of this distressing news. Admittedly, the F’s had the advantage that several of us had been involved in layoffs either from the employee side like me, or the manager side.
    • The N vs. S demo was entertaining also, as Don separated us into groups and said “Write down uses for this object” while holding up a pair of scissors. The N’s started brainstorming and had an “anything goes” attitude, so ideas like “Rock paper scissors” and “Pacman” (think of opening and closing the scissors as it moves forward) were included. The F’s ended up with fewer and more quotidian uses on their list.
  • Both of Jerry Weinberg‘s sessions that I attended were outstanding.
    • One was on being able to say no when needed – lots of interesting fodder for me to consider, including the idea that one can avoid the yes/no question entirely by providing other alternatives (shades of avoiding positional negotiations as described in Getting to Yes).

    • The other session was on not letting a four-year-old run your life. The theory is that we learn certain behavior patterns as children and ingrain them so deeply in our psyches that we don’t even question them, even if they no longer make sense for us as adults. He worked with one woman in the class who had a “rule” of “I must never ask for help”. Through the session, he worked with her on transforming that into “I must always be self-sufficient” to “I can always be self-sufficient” to “I can sometimes be self-sufficient” to “I can sometimes be self-sufficient, such as when:” (listing out scenarios like “It does not cost me too much to do so” or “I have the resources available”). Really interesting for me as I have difficult asking for help as well, so I may have to do some hacking on my own ingrained rules.
  • I also attended Esther Derby’s session on implementing ideas, which was interesting. We talked through different characteristics of successful and unsuccessful implementations in small groups, put together a list of successful characteristics, and one thing that stood out was organizational support. So Esther had us map out influence networks within our own companies around some idea we were trying to implement – who were the different people involved, how did they influence each other, and what was their relation to our idea. The process of drawing it out was useful to me in making it clear where I was fuzzy on influences and relationships. And then when I explainied it to another participant, he asked me questions that revealed I was making certain assumptions that may not be justified. So I’ve got some things to check on my understanding of why I’m having trouble implementing this idea.
  • I did not get as much out of Johanna Rothman‘s session on project portfolios as I had hoped. I was looking for some techniques to balance conflicting priorities when they’re coming from all directions and are generally requests that appear to be small, whereas the class was more focused on larger scale project prioritization with iterations of two weeks or a month. But another attendee overheard me asking Johanna about this afterwards, and he offered me several potentially useful ideas over lunch, so it was still beneficial.
  • I also managed to volunteer at one of Don Gray’s sessions on how to get unstuck when problem solving to get free consulting on a couple issues I’m facing at work. So I sat in the center of the room, and several other attendees asked questions about the situation and offered potential solutions and it was really helpful to be able to do that sort of brainstorming.
  • Steve Smith’s session on selling ideas to management was also helpful – he posited that the three key elements of a pitch to management are “What does the manager need to do?”, “What are the benefits for the manager of doing that?” and “What are the costs of the manager doing nothing?”. Then we ran through some role-playing with four people trying to pitch ideas to somebody role playing their manager, which was particularly helpful because we could ask the “manager” afterwards what worked and what didn’t, a benefit we almost never get in real life.

Overall, I enjoyed the conference and learned a lot. I met several like-minded people, have some new perspectives and tools with which to approach problems at both work and in life, and am starting to remember to value myself again. Now if I can only manage to integrate these ideas into how I approach my everyday life…

Jerry Weinberg

Tuesday, November 10th, 2009

As many of you know, I’m off at the AYE conference, and one of the major attractors for me personally was Jerry Weinberg. I’ve read books of his like Becoming a Technical Leader and The Secrets of Consulting, and his systems thinking approach is an inspiration to me (his second “law of consulting” is “No matter what they say, it’s always a people problem”).

I attended his first session yesterday afternoon, on being able to say “No” and mean it. It started off somewhat slowly, but things picked up when he requested a volunteer to talk about a situation where they should have said “No” but didn’t. The volunteer discussed a time when he had given an outsized raise to an employee in the early days of his company. Jerry had the conversation role played out in the middle of the room, and a few lines into it, he called freeze to discuss what he saw going on.

He’s a freaking people ninja. In this particular case, he explained how the volunteer was defending his position of not wanting to give a big raise, without ever testing how serious the raise request was. As somebody else pointed out, it’s okay for others to want whatever they want, including a big raise, but we have to recognize those wants as being requests, and treat them as such, rather than treating them as demands to be defended against, subjugating our own opinions in the process. As Jerry asked the volunteer, “Why don’t you value yourself?”

It reminded me of a passage from Speaker from the Dead, where Miro sees Ender clearly for the first time, and says something like “It was as if he knew people at such a deep level that he just brushed past the surface illusions” (the real quote is better but I don’t have it with me). That’s what it felt like watching Jerry parse these conversations. He just ignored the artifice, said what he thought was going on, and was totally present and congruent. Inspirational.

I then got the even greater bonus of going out to dinner with Jerry afterwards – in the session, he said he wanted to meet some of the new conference-goers and five of us immediately volunteered. We talked about a lot of different things, but I particularly liked it when he got into the war stories of old-time hacking. Fun fact of the day – Jerry said that six of the twelve programmers that originally wrote Fortran spent their time developing a single keyword, and he asked me what I thought that was. I took a couple guesses, and he enjoyed telling me the answer was FREQUENCY, and seeing the puzzled look on my face as I had never even heard of it (it was the first thing removed from the language after release). In some sense, he’s a generalist role model for me, as he’s done software, psychology, systems thinking, writing, etc. (he talked about his PhD in systems, where he had to satisfy professors in a number of different fields from linguistics to engineering, even though none of them could pass each others’ tests).

Unfortunately, Jerry announced via Twitter yesterday that he has been diagnosed with fatal thymic carcinoma and this will be his final public appearance for the foreseeable future.

I’m glad I decided to go this year to the conference. The rest of the conference has been good, but meeting Jerry has definitely been a highlight and I’m glad I got the opportunity.

The world is small. Except when it isn’t.

Monday, September 14th, 2009

Golly. Three months without posting. But things have calmed down at work, I took a few days off for Burning Man two weekends ago, and I slept most of this past weekend, and, hey, look, I have things to say again. Well, actually, I’ve had things to say for months, but not the energy to write them up after work. And it didn’t help that I felt like I had to write something _really_ insightful or amazing to justify posting after such a long drought. But that’s silly, so this week I’m going to try to post multiple times to try to start the habit back up again.

I had a small-world moment with a friend I was meeting at Burning Man, where we discovered multiple separate paths through social space by which we could have known each other (otherwise known as small world syndrome, where it seems like new people we meet always know people that we know). I’ve talked about small world syndrome before as an example of reality coefficients, where our social worlds are so small because we only interact with people who share our view of reality.

I also had a large-world moment a few weeks ago, when I attended a housewarming party where I really only knew the host, putting me in a large room of people where I didn’t know anybody. And I chatted with several folks and realized that their social world didn’t overlap with mine at all except through this one friend we had in common. It was an interesting experience, as what little social time I have had outside of work over the past year has been spent with my close friends, so I’d been enveloped in my small world. It was good for me to step outside it and remember there are all these people I don’t know, whose worlds might be interesting and worth checking out.

I think there’s value in both experiences. Being in a small world is comforting – it provides a place where our values are reinforced and where basic worldview assumptions don’t have to be defended. But it is also limiting in preventing us from having new experiences, from challenging our beliefs – it makes it more difficult to grow. Part of the reason I moved to New York was that I felt like I was in a rut in the Bay Area, where my world had gotten too small, so it was time for me to step out into the larger world.

However, being in a large world has a separate set of issues. It does provide challenges and new experiences, but it also requires one to be always “on”, which can become exhausting. Some people thrive on the constant shiny newness, but I am not one of them. That was one of the reasons I moved back to California, with the goal of taking what I’d learned about large-world living in New York and balancing it with my small worlds in the Bay Area.

We choose the mix of small worlds and large worlds we live in. Some people choose to live within a small world their entire life (e.g. somebody living in a small town, or somebody who spends all their time on one interest like sports or video games), prioritizing comfort over growth. Others choose the large-world life of novelty, traveling the world, constantly throwing themselves into new situations for the sheer thrill of it. And every possibility in between is available, with small worlds and large worlds overlapping in interesting and unexpected ways, such as becoming the common element between multiple small worlds.

I also think it’s interesting that we call out “small world moments” when we find a surprising social connection that makes the world smaller, but don’t similarly call out “large world moments” when we step into a new and different world. I suppose that’s because “large world moments” are the default, as we don’t expect to know strangers, and our brains are wired to remember exceptions. But it might be good to observe the “large world moments” as well, to remind ourselves that the default expectation is the default for a reason.

I don’t really have a point here, but thought it was interesting to contemplate both why the world is occasionally small, and, more regularly, large, and how we can choose the mix of small and large worlds that we live in. And it is a choice – it’s up to us to change our worlds when they are not currently suiting our desired identity (if we change our environment, we change who we are). We design ourselves by choosing our context, and we must choose to be active designers.


Monday, May 11th, 2009

Charlie asked the question last week: “Why aren’t you striving to be a leader in your field?” which has gotten me thinking about leadership, and what it means to be a leader. It also sparked an email exchange with a friend on the topic, which led to some interesting thoughts.

What does it mean to be a leader?

  • Is it being an “active participant in professional societies, write popular blogs about your industry, get asked to write articles for magazines and regularly speak on conference panels”, as Charlie suggests?
  • Is it being the person on top of the org chart giving orders?
  • Is it about knowing more than others?
  • Is it being the person who everybody gets along with and goes to with their questions and problems?
  • Is it being the person motivating others to achieve more?
  • Is it about being impressive?

We can probably think of people in all of these categories who we think of as leaders. So it’s clear that “leadership” is not an easily definable characteristic. Yet it’s like obscenity – we know it when we see it.

Perhaps leadership is about helping people achieve their goals. In other words, if I want to be a leader, I must gain followers, and therefore I must do something that would get people to follow me. I can do that in a number of different ways:

  • I can be an industry spokesperson, with the potential to widely publicize followers who add value, possibly turning them into leaders themselves.
  • I can be the organized one, who puts together plans, prioritizes goals, makes sure resources are available, etc. so that my followers efficiently use their time and effort.
  • I can be the domain expert, with the experience to understand how to turn ideas into reality and the ability to enhance others’ capabilities by providing them with the knowledge they need to succeed.
  • I can be the consensus builder, able to bridge different viewpoints and synthesize them into solutions that are better than any individual contribution.
  • I can be the inspirational one, able to convince people to reach deep inside themselves to work harder towards a common goal.

One way to measure leadership might be to see who everybody in the room looks to when a decision needs to be made. Just because somebody is the manager on the org chart doesn’t necessarily make them that sort of leader (as Rands’s great story about “The Culture Chart” illustrates). One can be “The Guy” to whom others look using any of the methods described above.

So what can one do to become a leader? Part of being a leader is understanding one’s own strengths and weaknesses and choosing a leadership style that matches one’s tendencies. Gerald Weinberg’s book Becoming a Technical Leader offers advice about finding one’s own path towards leadership. And, on the flip side, it’s hard to take somebody seriously as a leader when they are acting in a way that is contrary to their nature – the engineer trying to schmooze his way to the top, or the MBA spouting half-understood technical jargon.

Mostly I’m fascinated by this idea of leadership that initially seems so prosaically obvious – we all know what leadership is – and yet so difficult to define.

What do you think defines a leader?

P.S. There were a couple crazy months there, both at work and in life. Things have calmed down a bit, and I enjoyed a slothful few weeks to recover from the craziness, but it may be time to pick up the posting habit again.


Friday, December 26th, 2008

I flew up to my parents’ house yesterday, and our plane came in late due to storms. Over the intercom, the flight attendant said that there was “a newlywed couple in row 14 trying to make a tight connection to their flight to Amsterdam, so if rows 1-13 can please let them through before getting up, they’d really appreciate it.” I leaned over to my sister, and said that such an appeal would never work, as I’d seen it fail on a couple other flights. My sister said she’d seen it work several times, and, in fact, the first 13 rows did stay seated until the couple got to the front of the plane.

I was trying to figure out what was different about this time versus the other times I’d seen it fail, and realized that it was the specificity of the appeal. On the other flights I remember, the flight attendant said “We have several people trying to make close connections, please let them through”, and that appeal had no effect, as everybody considered themselves to have close connections, so everybody got up. What was effective this time was that the flight attendant had framed it as a story – the one-line story of the couple trying to get to Amsterdam reified them in our brains as “real” people. The story also invoked our social sense, and made us defer to them as we would for any member of our community.

To give more background on my thinking, my post on the ultimatum game explores how our brains react differently when we have a one-off transaction with somebody (where we try to get all that we can from that transaction) versus how we react when we are part of a community (where fairness becomes a factor as we’ll have to interact with them again in the future). I also argue in the following post that we can use stories to expand our “monkeysphere”, the number of people that we consider to be “real” people as opposed to strangers who we distrust and/or take advantage of.

Making people persons by associating stories with them comes up in many different situations that I can think of:

  • One obvious application is that of user interface design, where I’ve been heavily influenced by Alan Cooper’s tactic of using personas to model real users. In particular, one of the reasons I was effective as a software developer is that I was always developing software for specific people with whom I interacted, rather than for a generic “user”. Because my target audience was specific and real and I knew the stories of how they worked, my software was more effective at helping those people accomplish their goals.
  • Another example is in the area of management, especially in the creation of a divide between managers and workers. When the two sides don’t know each other, there is the tendency to ascribe the worst motivations to the other side, and assume that they are actively working towards one’s destruction. But both sides are just fallible humans doing the best they can. Sometimes there are no good choices as a manager, and the manager is doing the best he or she can under the circumstances. As somebody who interacted with both sides, I saw both viewpoints and therefore couldn’t demonize the managers as arrogant control freaks or the workers as entitled whiners. I couldn’t flatten them out into stereotypes, as their stories kept them real people to me.
  • One last example is in the area of politics, and specifically homosexuality. I grew up in a very sheltered and religious suburb of Chicago, where the default assumption was that homosexuals were deviant and evil. When I got to MIT, and found myself living in a house with such people, I was initially wary. But of course, once I got to know them as people, I realized how stupid and broken the stereotypes in my head were. And this has been my observation of others as well – it’s difficult to treat somebody as a stereotype once you know them as a person, because their specific details supercede the stereotype in your head.

It takes practice to remember to treat others as people, and not as puppet players on whom you are projecting your own fears and hopes. I still fall into the trap of ascribing my own stories to other people and assuming the worst or best, and being surprised either way. Learning to treat others as real people in their own right remains a goal towards which I strive, and I think it’s an essential skill to learn in a massively networked world where we are always interacting with people outside of our own core community.

What do you think?

P.S. A friend’s new blog, Made of Happy, has a neat star rating WordPress plugin, and when I inquired about it, she said it was GD Star Rating, so I just installed it. Now you can provide feedback on my posts without the trouble of having to come up with a comment!

Switching Costs

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2008

Earlier this week I switched my RSS reader from Bloglines to Google Reader.

I’d been meaning to check out Google Reader for months, if not years, but had never gotten around to it, as Bloglines was serving me well enough for what I needed, and I’d gotten used to its quirks.

But over the past couple weeks, Bloglines started failing at its primary purpose, delivering RSS feeds on demand, as it stopped properly updating feeds. It didn’t bother me too much at first as I was busy enough that reading blogs was a luxury, but it was starting to get annoying. And then somebody twittered about a TechCrunch article describing how Bloglines users were fleeing to Google Reader, which provided instructions on making the move. Ten seconds later, I was moved to Google Reader, and now I probably won’t go back.

Let’s parse out what happened here, as I think it’s instructive.

  1. A few years ago, I started reading enough blogs that updated infrequently that checking them one by one was becoming ridiculous. So I started looking for an RSS reader, and chose Bloglines as it met my requirements well enough at the time (Barry Schwartz, of The Paradox of Choice, would call this “satisficing” – speaking of which, I need to review that book at some point). In particular, it was web-based so that I could read blogs from work or home without duplication, which was the key differentiator from Thunderbird, the other major contender.
  2. I stuck with the choice for several years, even as bits of it started to annoy me, as the perceived switching costs were too high. Given that there are no lock-in effects in this software (no data that I couldn’t export), the switching costs were purely cognitive. In other words, the cognitive effort of switching was the major lock-in for this product. Also, the benefits of switching were minimal – Bloglines was meeting my needs, so it was unclear how other software would be better in that core functionality.
  3. Once Bloglines started to fail in its primary purpose (making it easy for me to see the latest in my desired feeds), the benefit of switching became relatively greater (other RSS readers were succeeding where Bloglines was failing).
  4. Once I read the TechCrunch article, I had “social proof”, the term Cialdini uses to label our tendency to want to see others doing something before doing it ourselves. Knowing that there were dozens of other people making me the same switch helped convince me to make the jump. That was the critical tipping point.
  5. The actual switch took about ten seconds (export from Bloglines, import into Google Reader). To reiterate, the effort of switching had nothing to do with the actual work it would take to switch – it was the cognitive effort of having to re-open a decision that I had already made.

What’s my point here? In the Web world, switching is often fairly painless, as most vendors provide a way to easily get one’s data out of their system (and if they don’t, that’s a bad sign). Companies are generally relying on us to pick a system and get comfortable with it, so that habit and the perceived cognitive effort of making a change is a far greater impediment to switching than other possible lock-in effects. In such a situation, the company has to never make it easier to contemplate the switch; in other words, if the company continues to fulfill its value proposition to the user, users will stick around, but as soon as they lapse, users may leave in droves (as appears to be happening to Bloglines).

Another way of thinking about it is that the game between companies and users is all played in people’s minds. While economists may believe that people are rationally maximizing their potential economic gain, most of us are far less rational in our decision-making. We use brand names over equivalent generics because of advertising or because we “trust” the brand name more. We stick with products or services that are clearly inferior to newer ones because it’s too much effort to re-open the decision we originally made. Companies that understand this game will be telling stories to convince people to use their products or services, rather than trying to convince them with data. For instance, the book Positioning is all about creating new primary needs in the minds of consumers to give them the necessary impetus to switch.

So focus on the value proposition your company offers to its customers. If you can make sure that the value of your product keeps on increasing, you can benefit from the perceived effort of switching and keep customers even in situations where they might rationally choose another product or service. Ideally, of course, your product is the best in class, but every little edge counts, right?

Now I just have to get over the cognitive effort of switching from Windows to Mac…

P.S. I have been at Google for exactly one month as of today. Crazy how the time flies!

Whuffie and social capital

Wednesday, August 20th, 2008

I’ve been meaning to get around to reading Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow for a while now, and finally got around to it recently after downloading it to my iPhone (thanks, Stanza!). The most recent trigger to read it was from Tara Hunt, who is writing a book called The Whuffie Factor using a term from Doctorow’s book.

Whuffie is an idea stemming from Doctorow’s examination of “reputation economies” and “post-scarcity social dynamics”. In the book, all physical needs are satisfied for free, health is guaranteed, etc. So how do people compare themselves to each other? What do they strive for? The answer is “Whuffie” – essentially a numeric indication of reputation. If you see somebody rudely push somebody else aside, you indicate a debit on the pusher’s Whuffie. If you see somebody do something notable or impressive or selfless, you indicate a credit. People with high Whuffie numbers are more respected and tend to be leaders as others defer to their “Whuffie”.

“Whuffie” is basically measuring social capital, but in a publicly visible easily adjustable way. You can see why this concept would interest me, given my social capitalist post from a couple months ago. In the circles of society where I typically hang out, it matters less how much you make or what you have bought – instead, people are judged by what they contribute, the fresh ideas and perspectives they bring, and what they are building in the world. In other words, social capital matters more than fiscal capital.

From a purely capitalistic perspective, this “economy” doesn’t make much sense – it violates capitalistic assumptions to do things to impress others without necessarily having a path towards extracting fiscal value. And yet, it turns out that the things done in this way sometimes create much more value than projects designed to extract ROI (return on investment). When Hugh MacLeod drew the Blue Monster cartoon for Microsoft, he did it as a one-off because he thought it expressed an interesting idea, never thinking it might turn into a consulting business as other companies try to hire him to create a similar cartoon to express their brand. Many of the “A-list” bloggers didn’t start blogging to get famous – they started because they just wanted to share their opinion with the world. It’s a peculiar paradox – doing something for intangible rewards can sometimes pay off in tangible rewards, but only if you are not doing it for the tangible rewards.

Building social capital involves approaching interactions from the perspective of what one can do to help others. It has to be done from a selfless perspective, because we humans are reasonably well-trained in detecting ulterior motives. It’s like using the techniques of Dale Carnegie – when used for good purposes, they increase the value of the interaction for everybody, but when used for selfish reasons, they are often perceived as clumsy attempts at manipulation. Trying to calculate every interaction in terms of how I can benefit is going to limit my upside, whereas trying to do good for others creates the potential for much bigger wins.

To take another perspective, this ties into my theme of non-zero-sum thinking from earlier in the summer. Trying to help others creates the possibility of “growing the pie” of finding solutions that help everybody rather than just oneself. Trying to be selfish may ensure a larger fraction of the pie, but limits the size of the pie. Building social capital is an exercise in building “non-zero-sum-ness”, to use Robert Wright’s term from his book Nonzero (which I will read one of these days, honest!).

I was going to add a disclaimer here that this idea of building social capital may only make sense in affluent developed societies, but I’m not sure I believe that (disclaimer: the following paragraph is a wild extrapolation based on nothing resembling facts or research). The cohesion of villages has a lot to do with social capital, as people know they will be judged long-term by how they behave towards others. They can’t just up and move away to escape a toxic environment they have created, so they have a better sense of the long-term. Also, without the capitalistic urge towards me-me-me, villagers are less concerned with “keeping up with the Joneses” and more about what will build their standing long-term in the community. I’m reminded of Lewis Hyde’s The Gift, which explores the powerful resonance of gift-giving in myths throughout many different cultures, where those who hoard are punished and those who give are rewarded.

I’m not quite sure where I’m going with this concept, but I feel like there’s an important idea hidden somewhere in here about how social capital and non-zero-sumness interact and what that implies about how I should be behaving. I guess I’m also trying to figure out a responses to Adam Smith capitalism where the “invisible hand” will make the system work if everybody diligently pursues their own self-interest. I think that we are seeing the limits of that system, and I’m trying to understand what the motivating assumptions of a new system would be. In a future post, perhaps I will figure out how one might design a company around such a “Whuffie” system to create the proper incentives for employees to think of the long-term and of others rather than hoping the “invisible hand” will take care of the company.

P.S. I realize I never actually mentioned the book itself. The book explores how the quest for “Whuffie” influences several characters in a future Disney World run by “adhocracies”, fluid networks of people who have chosen to help run the park (remember, nobody has to work in this future scenario). It was a quick, fun read, but the idea of “Whuffie” as a motivating factor in society was the most interesting concept to me.

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