Encouraging useful failure

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.

Startup vs. big company culture

November 9th, 2011

Since Larry Page became Google’s CEO again in April, his focus has been on “making a company of more than 24,000 employees act like a startup“. And because of my interest in mapping out organizational space and understanding the different ways in which people can organize themselves, I’ve been trying to figure out what, exactly, differentiates a startup culture from a big company culture.

My current theory is that the difference is in incentive alignment. At a startup, it is difficult to be individually successful while doing the wrong thing for the company, because if the company fails, everybody is out of a job. At a big company, though, fiefdoms can develop, where within a fief, people can get promoted for improving the position of that group despite being obstructionist to the rest of the company. This is often what people disdainfully refer to as corporate politics.

This reminds me of Mancur Olson’s book Power and Prosperity, where he describes how it makes economic sense for special interest groups to subvert democracy in harmful ways – if they represent 1% of the population and push for an action that will benefit them while hurting the overall democracy, they reap 100% of the benefit but only feel 1% of the pain. A similar dynamic is at work for groups within big companies, where they push for their own agenda even when it might hurt the overall company’s position.

This difference in incentives drives many of the differences in behaviors between startups and big companies. At a startup, nobody says “That’s not my job” when asked to do something that’s critical to the company’s success, because they won’t have a job if the company isn’t successful. At a startup, people have an understanding of what drives the company’s success and re-prioritize on the fly if necessary if market conditions are changing. Everybody is invested both economically and personally in the startup’s success, and that drives a unity of purpose that overrides individual agendas.

At a big company, people want to avoid risks and perpetuate the status quo, because creeping up the corporate ladder is the safer path. It’s easier to say no than yes, leading to the big-company phenomenon where every new project has to be signed off on by 10 different departments (legal, finance, security, PR, marketing, sales, engineering, etc), creating 10 opportunities for “No” without having a single person that can say “Yes” and have it stick. It’s possible to get promoted and get paid more without doing anything to benefit the company, if you are advancing your group’s agenda and hitting your individual targets even if the targets are no longer meaningful.

So what does it mean to have a big company with a startup culture? Part of it is figuring out how to get everybody at the company aligned on what the priorities of the company are (this is incredibly difficult at a sprawling company like Google), and rewarding them appropriately. Part of it is to encourage appropriate risk-taking – rewarding those who said “Yes” when it was the right thing to do even if the project failed. Part of it is creating a more risky environment in general – the people who are attracted to safe big companies with a well-defined ladder are not the people that will function well in a startup culture where things are changing fast. And I’m sure there is lots more that I haven’t figured out yet.

I’m fascinated to be part of Larry Page’s Google experiment on creating a big company with a startup culture. I’m not sure it’s possible without addressing the questions of incentive alignment and risk I raise here, but I want for it to be possible. The scale of projects that can be done at a big company are mind-boggling, but I also miss the free-wheeling all-for-one-and-one-for-all culture at the startups I’ve been at in the past. I will be watching closely and looking for opportunities to help with this culture shift as somebody who has startup experience and is interested in these sorts of culture questions.

Griftopia, by Matt Taibbi

October 31st, 2011

Amazon link

Matt Taibbi is angry. He is a Rolling Stone columnist who spent the last several years covering the financial crisis, and as an outside observer, is far more negative about the finance industry than anybody associated with it. Griftopia is a collection of columns and other research put together as a striking condemnation of what has happened to America in the last twenty years.

Taibbi’s main thesis is that the finance industry has, rather than produce real value, chosen to exploit value created by others by creating financial instruments. He digs into the mortgage crisis, the commodities bubble, urban privatization and health care and shows how these are all different facets of the same attitude – make a quick buck for yourself, and damn the long-term consequences. I don’t know if all of Taibbi’s allegations are accurate, but he strings his observations together into a compelling story of a country headed into oblivion, because we are letting these jerks get away with it.

Here’s Taibbi’s description of the bubble economy:

Imagine the whole economy has turned into a casino. Investors are betting on oil futures, subprime mortgages, and Internet stocks, hoping for a quick score. In this scenario the major brokerages and investment banks play the role of the house. Just like real casinos, they always win in the end – regardless of which investments succeed or fail, they always take their cut in the form of fees and interest. Also just like real casinos, they only make more money as the number of gamblers increases: the more you play, the more they make. And even if the speculative bubbles themselves have all the inherent value of a royal flush, the money the house takes out is real. … Bettors chase imaginary riches, while the house turns those dreams into real mansions.

Now imagine that every time the bubble bursts and the gamblers all go belly-up, the house is allowed to borrow giant piles of money from the state for next to nothing. The casino then in turn lends out all that money at the door to its recently busted customers, who flock back to the tables to lose their shirts all over again. The cycle quickly repeats itself, only this time the gambles is in even worse shape than before; now he’s not only lost his own money, he’s lost his money and he owes the house for what he’s borrowed.

Taibbi shows how this played out in the subprime mortgage crisis, but also in several other areas:

  • Commodities trading used to be about hedging risk, where a corn farmer could lock in a guaranteed price at market. The government used to enforce position limits, to ensure that “the trading on the commodities markets would be dominated by the physical hedgers”. However, in the 80s and 90s, the government issued exemptions to those position limits to several banks like Goldman Sachs, leading to 2008, when “80 percent of the activity on the commodity exchanges was speculative”. Instead of creating and maintaining real value from real crops, the commodities market became just another casino. This played into the oil price craziness of 2008, which exacerbated the slide into recession.

  • He also tells the story of how Chicago leased its parking meters for 75 years to an Abu Dhabi coalition for a lump-sum payment to cover a budget deficit – they essentially securitized the parking meter income stream. The downside was that the new lessors immediately raised prices and extended the meter schedule to start making a lot more money than originally projected in the lump sum payment, and left Chicago in worse shape than when it started.

Taibbi uses several more examples to demonstrate that Wall Street is a parasite getting fat by sucking profit out of others. It’s a short-term attitude that destroys value, rather than create value by producing goods and services. He ends the book by describing Goldman Sachs as a “vampire squid”, entwined with every aspect of the American economy and sucking value out of all of it without creating any value itself.

Griftopia is a withering tirade against what Wall Street has done to the American economy, and how the government and we, the people, have allowed it. It’s a quick read, and I recommend it for a different perspective on the recent financial crises than what is reported in more typical news channels.

Understanders vs. Fixers

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.

The value of finance teams

June 3rd, 2011

When I was considering whether to take a job in Google’s finance department, a successful entrepreneur friend of mine told me I was making a mistake. He felt that designers and engineers added value to the world by creating new products, but the only thing finance people did was to say no. Given the pride I had taken over the years in creating valuable products like the CellKey system, I wondered whether I was making the right choice.

After a couple years here at Google, I agree with my friend that there are far too many people within corporate finance departments that are beancounters. Their only goal is to make sure the sums add up and that the processes are being painstakingly followed. Anything that disrupts their routine is fought with every fiber of their being. I made a mistake last fall that meant that Google had to pay out invoices faster than net 30 terms, and I spent weeks begging the team in accounts payable to vary their process this one time. Other finance teams have frustrated me by sticking resolutely to their quarterly plans even when the environment had shifted since those plans were made.

That being said, good finance people provide a level of clarity and objective vision to the executives. Finance takes a separate look from outside the product domain to review revenue and cost trajectories, as my team at Google does for the Revenue Force team. Our CFO, Patrick Pichette, asks every product leader what they’re going to get done next quarter and what resources they’ll need to get there, and then he follows up the following quarter by evaluating their success on achieving those goals with those resources. By having that outside check, it forces product teams to re-evaluate their own success every quarter rather than trying to launch at all costs.

Finance can also help the executives make decisions across product lines. Product people often want to invest in all the cool ideas they have and won’t prioritize to make the hard tradeoffs, because it’s like choosing one’s favorite child. The finance team can provide a framework to the execs for valuing the different product initiatives for the company to help the execs make those tradeoffs at the corporate level. This doesn’t necessarily mean making decisions purely based on profits – corporate objectives might include other metrics like user adoption, as is the case for Google products like Chrome and Android. But having a consistent framework makes it easier to compare products across the company.

Evaluating the business model for a product is also part of finance’s responsibility. Even if a product is technically excellent, the business model surrounding it may not be successful (e.g. Signature going bankrupt despite the CellKey instrument being on the path towards success, or Google Wave). Good finance people understand the product vision and the potential market, but can tie those lofty goals back to the prosaic P&L statement, and provide a viewpoint on whether the assumptions embedded in that model make sense and are achieving corporate objectives.

Lastly, great finance people can change the way executives think by giving them a new way to frame their businesses. Because the finance team is looking at things from a different perspective, they can provide insights that the executive team might be missing. It means going beyond the numbers to provide strategic insight that changes the priorities of the executives. I’ve been fortunate enough to see my manager do this a few times with the Google execs, and the value of providing that new perspective is huge.

This vision of a good finance person is actually well aligned with the value I provide as a generalist, connecting different perspectives and providing new viewpoints based on integrating those perspectives together. So while I agree with my friend that product people are creating value in a more concrete way, I believe that finance people can create value through changing the way the rest of the company thinks about the business. We’ll see if I can start changing the way product people think about their counterparts in finance.

Action despite uncertainty

June 2nd, 2011

Scott Berkun just posted about situations in life where good data is impossible, which reminded me of a quote I’ve been meaning to share.

I once went to a talk by Bob Sutton where he cited a quote by Andy Grove, CEO of Intel:

“I think it is very important for you to do two things: act on your temporary conviction as if it was a real conviction; and when you realize that you are wrong, correct course very quickly.

Investment decisions or personnel decisions and prioritization don’t wait for the picture to be clarified. You have to make them when you have to make them. You take your shots and clean up the bad ones later.

(So you have to keep your own spirits up even though you well understand that you don’t know what you’re doing)”

I think this is one of the hardest things to learn as I progress in the business world – many situations I’m asked to handle are novel, because routine decisions are handled by bureaucracy in the form of established processes or at a more junior level. Taking action when I know I don’t have enough data requires a leap of faith that I’m best positioned to make a decision anyway.

The Master Switch, by Tim Wu

March 13th, 2011

Amazon link

Subtitled “The Rise and Fall of Information Empires”, Wu has no lack of ambition as he addresses how information and communication companies such as AT&T, Paramount Studios, NBC, and CBS have dominated our discourse over the past century. The title comes from a quote illustrating the perils of such domination: “At stake is not the First Amendment or the right of free speech, but exclusive custody of the master switch.” (Fred Friendly). When a single company can determine what innovations are pursued or whose message gets transmitted, it has potentially negative consequences on our society.

The book is primarily a history of the telecommunications industry in the twentieth century, as Wu examines how each new technology innovation (telephone, radio, movies, TV) arose in a spirit of changing the world, before eventually getting subsumed into a monopoly or oligopoly, created with the tacit assistance of the government, either through regulation or patent enforcement. Wu calls this “the Cycle”, and the underlying question of the book is whether the Internet will be subject to “the Cycle”, or whether this time is different. I thought that Wu had to stretch to make the case that each of these industries followed the same pattern, but it was interesting to me to read the history of each of these industries, as there was much I didn’t know.

I liked how Wu demonstrated how technology innovation was never enough to up-end an industry. Because of the nature of innovation, several independent inventors often came up with the next step at roughly the same time (e.g. Alexander Graham Bell is known as the inventor of the telephone, but Wu points out that Elisha Gray, Johann Reis and Daniel Drawbaugh also had created primitive telephones, or the various number of people who invented television). The difference in the one that we remember as the inventor is that he partnered with a business person who ruthlessly pursued the goal of creating a company based on the invention (e.g. Theodore Vail creating AT&T based on Bell’s work, or David Sarnoff creating NBC by undermining Philo Farnsworth). There is a myth of technological determinism in Silicon Valley, that the right technical innovation “naturally” becomes the dominant one, but Wu’s book shows how the right business strategy (and good timing) is also necessary.

Another good insight was the natural tendency of these telecommunications technologies to centralize because of economies of scale. Once AT&T had a set of long-distance lines in place, it was prohibitively expensive for anybody else to lay lines, so the government essentially traded AT&T a monopoly in exchange for providing universal telephone service. Once media industries realized the potential of advertising, the nationwide networks had a huge advantage in that they could spread their costs over much larger audiences. And even though AT&T was broken up into AT&T and the Baby Bells in the early 1980s, the tendency towards centralization has been demonstrated as those Baby Bells have now merged and re-merged until there are only two descendants of AT&T, the re-formed AT&T in the west, and Verizon in the east.

The centralization of these industries also deterred innovation, as the companies involved didn’t want to risk the (massive) income stream that they already had. For instance, while AT&T, and particularly Bell Labs, was the source of many great innovations including the transistor and UNIX, the company also squashed anything that might threaten telephone usage. Wu tells the story of Clarence Hickman, an AT&T engineer who created an answering machine with magnetic tape audio recording… in 1934. The technology was buried, and magnetic tape recording would only be discovered decades later. Why? Because AT&T worried that the ability to record a conversation might keep people from using the telephone and “render the telephone much less satisfactory and useful in the vast majority of cases in which it is employed”. The story of the Hush-a-Phone is also instructive, where AT&T sent dozens of lawyers after an independent inventor who dared to create a phone attachment to keep one’s conversation private. Insane in retrospect, but once a monopoly is created, its primary purpose is to perpetuate its monopoly and therefore eliminate any potential threats.

Another danger in creating such centralization is there becomes a single point at which pressure can be applied to restrict communication. For instance, I had known about the “Hays Code”, which prevailed from the 1930s to the 1950s, and ensured that only “moral” things could be shown in movies. I had always assumed that was a law or regulation. Instead, what happened was that a “Legion of Decency” threatened to boycott any theater that showed “immoral” movies. The movie industry by that point had been concentrated into the few studios that still dominate today (Paramount, Warner Brothers, Universal and Fox), and those studios had full vertical integration, owning everything from the production to the distribution to the theaters where the movies were shown. All that the “Legion of Decency” had to do to get its way was convince the CEOs of those few companies that their profits would be threatened by boycotting the theaters. So a “code” that could never be passed into law due to the First Amendment was allowed to censor the industry for three decades until the vertical integration of the movie industry was broken up such that “the studios lost control over what the theaters showed”.

As can be seen, Wu has concerns about “the Cycle” with respect to telecommunications and media industries. Such industries tend to centralize quickly into one or a few companies that create efficiencies by monopolizing the industry, but that same centralization also has deleterious consequences for innovation and free speech in our society. In today’s world, we face similar questions about net neutrality (whether Verizon or Comcast can decide which content goes over its wires) and openness (the openness and chaos of the Google Android system vs. the closed but polished iPhone system from Apple), and Wu hopes that we can learn from history to make better decisions today.

Wu’s proposal is to create a “Separations Principle” that would prevent the development of vertically integrated companies in these industries. “It would mean that those who develop information, those who own the network infrastructure on which it travels, and those who control the tools or venues of access must be kept apart from one another.” If each layer of the information economy was kept separate, Wu believes that the dangers of concentration would be minimized, as innovations in one layer would not be suppressed to continue the dominance in another layer. Wu defends it as being a less subjective principle than antitrust, which has been the only tool to use against such companies to this point. I’m not sure I entirely agree with his premise, but I do think some clear guidelines on what kind of integration makes sense will be useful. And since he recently took a position as a senior advisor at the Federal Trade Commission, he will have the chance to make such recommendations. It will be interesting to see what happens.

I recommend this book if you’re interested in these sorts of issues. While Wu falls short in his attempt to draw together the overarching narrative of “the Cycle”, I appreciated the chance to learn more about the history of the telecommunications and media industries in an easy-to-read form.

Call your shot

March 3rd, 2011

Babe Ruth pointing to the stands, and then hitting a home run.

Joe Namath guaranteeing a Super Bowl victory despite being an 18-point underdog, and then going out and winning it.

There’s something magical about calling your shot – telling people you’re going to do something impressive and then doing it.

Even in the workplace, the way to earn more credibility, more trust, and more freedom to do what you want without interference, is to call your shot. Tell your audience, whether it’s your managers, your team, or your investors, that you’re going to do something ambitious and then execute. Every time you call your shot and make it, you earn yourself a longer rope. If you watch the dynamics at your workplace, you’ll see this play out repeatedly.

Of course, the downside is that if you call your shot and fail, then you may lose credibility. It’s a risky ploy in that way.

But the bigger risk may be not committing to any goals at all for fear of failure. Not calling a shot means that you are subject to those around you – the freedom and credibility will go to those who take risks, while you are left behind.

Which risk do you prefer? The risk of inaction or the risk of trying something ambitious and failing? And does it change the decision to realize that trying and failing is more respected and more satisfying by far?

Influential media

February 21st, 2011

Inspired by a mailing list discussion and Scott Berkun’s recent tweet of his favorite books post, I decided to put together a post of my own on the subject of media that changed the way I think, with lots of links to other times I have written about these influences.

  • Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead, by Orson Scott Card – yes, it’s trite for a nerd to like these books, and Orson Scott Card’s real-life kookiness makes it hard to support him, but the description of Ender articulated a couple attributes that became long-standing goals of mine. In particular, I love the description of Ender as being somebody who can see right through other people and understand their motivations and their approach to the world, and that’s a skill I continue to work on (although the most interesting people regularly surprise me).

    I also love this quote from Xenocide about Ender as it expresses how I tend to interact with the world, evolving my thinking on a regular basis.

    “Thousands of competing contradictory impossible visions that make no sense at all because they can’t all fit together but they do fit together, he makes them fit together, this way today, that way tomorrow, as they’re needed. As if he can make a new idea-machine inside his head for every new problem he faces. As if he conceives of a new universe to live in, every hour a new one, often hopelessly wrong and he ends up making mistakes and bad judgments, but sometimes so perfectly right that it opens new things up like a miracle and I look through his eyes and see the world his new way and it changes everything. Madness, and then illumination.”

    These books have been long-standing in their influence on my thinking – even fifteen years ago, I was writing about how Card’s view of communities influenced me and how his views on the importance of story-telling were a big part of my worldview. Heck, Ender’s Game even influences my ideas about how to manage people.

  • Phil Agre’s red-rock-eater mailing list. Long since discontinued (Agre disappeared off the grid a couple years ago), but reading it in the late 90s and early 2000s introduced me to critical thinking about science and technology and how those subjects interacted within the larger culture. It led me to The Social Life of Information, by Duguid and Brown, which was one of several books to open my eyes to how we depend on others to learn. It led me to Sorting Things Out, by Bowker and Star, which blew my mind with the subjectivity of classification systems, and that book led me to Bruno Latour, who continued to blow my mind for a decade. Speaking of which…
  • Bruno Latour – reading The Politics of Nature changed how I see the world by describing how all of our structures (social, technological and physical) are contingent and reflections of how the world was perceived when the structures were built.
  • Language in Thought and Action, by S.I. Hayakawa – great introduction to semantics and how language influences how we think about the world
  • George Lakoff, who convinced me that political opinions are dependent on worldviews that can’t be influenced by facts. Therefore, making a difference in politics isn’t a matter of argument or explanation, but instead a matter of tactical ingenuity to exploit the existing system, which is less interesting to me. There is still an element of message management I find interesting (e.g. “Yes we can”), but between Lakoff and the disappointment of volunteering in the 2004 election, I pretty much gave up on paying attention to politics.
  • James Carse, particularly his book Finite and Infinite Games, which gave me a vocabulary to separate out activities designed to change the world from those that exploit the existing state of the world.
  • The User Illusion by Tor Norretranders and Sources of Power, by Gary Klein, which both do a good job of explaining that most of our brainpower is in the unconscious mind, which has to be trained to take cognitive load off of our limited conscious capacity.
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the TV show) – the first TV show I watched obsessively, the first one I paid attention to that built a complex enough universe to reward multiple rewatchings, the first one that I read literary criticism about, the one that drove me and a friend to create the alt.tv.buffy-v-slayer FAQ. Buffy gave me an idea of what good TV could do, and I’ve spent most of the past decade watching too much TV trying to recapture that initial experience.

I could go on and on, especially once I started trolling through the book reviews I’ve put on this blog, but that’s enough for now. Also, man, looking at all those old reviews reminds me I need to make more time for reading – I haven’t done any serious reading in months!

Who is your audience?

February 20th, 2011

One of the broader points that I don’t know if I made clearly in my last post is that effective communication depends not only on the message you are delivering, but also on the audience which the message is targeting. In the case of writing a resume, you have to remember that you are targeting a busy hiring manager who will spend less than ten seconds in glancing at your resume before making a decision. To get the phone screen, you need to tailor your resume for that audience, rather than doing what is most convenient for you.

This idea of knowing your audience resonates in all aspects of business life. It’s difficult to design an effective communication without knowing who the recipient is. But if you know who are you speaking to and the message you want to deliver to that person, it makes it much clearer how to design that message to reach your target. For instance, when a presentation is not coming together, I am often able to help coworkers by asking who the target audience of the presentation is, and what message they want to deliver to that audience. I’ve learned from my manager to ask of each element of the presentation “So what?” – why should the audience care about what I’m presenting?

As an aside, another aspect of designing effective presentations is realizing that you need to get the audience’s attention in the first 30-60 seconds, just like with a resume. These days, every audience has their smartphones or their laptops in easy reach with lots of distracting possibilities. So your presentation has to grab their attention in the first minute, or they’ll tune you out and go catch up on email or Twitter or Facebook. Any presentation that depends on the audience paying attention for ten minutes before delivering any sort of pay-off is going to fail because the audience will have been lost. As with the resume, what you are really trying to do with a presentation is earn the right to the audience’s attention for a little while longer. Structure the presentation in such a way to deliver value to the audience throughout, or you will lose them.

Being able to understand your audience well either involves empathy or experience. Empathy in the sense that it depends on being able to put yourself in the position of your audience to understand what they care about. Experience can sometimes substitute for empathy as you may have been in the position of your audience yourself (e.g. my experience as a hiring manager has made it clearer to me what other hiring managers might be looking for on a resume). Either way, though, the first step is to step away from your own knowledge and needs to think about what your audience needs to get from your communication.

This is also a key skill as a product manager – understand the target user, figure out what problems they are having and design a new product or feature to solve their problem. All too often, product managers start from a self-centered point of view and create a new product/feature based on what they can offer without thinking through what their user wants. This is particularly common in larger corporations where the product managers are often separated by many layers from dealing with actual customers or users. Meanwhile, in my time at Fog Creek, I spent enough time on the phone doing tech support and sales that the perspective of our customers was never far from my consciousness. Again, either empathy for or experience as the potential user is crucial to making the right decisions.

Developing the ability to effectively construct communications for a variety of audiences, whether the communication is in the form of a presentation, a white paper, an email, or a product requirements document, is a skill that is essential to corporate life (and, really, all of life). So before your next important communication, think about who your audience is, what they want, and how you can construct your communication in such a way as to get your message across more effectively.

P.S. It’s interesting to note how my thinking on this has evolved slightly from my post in 2009 asking what is the story, as I now realize that getting the story right involves understanding the audience. Stories are not universal – they are just one way to convey a message from me to you.

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