Survival Is Not Enough, by Seth Godin

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Technically, this isn’t on Joel’s list, but he knows Seth, and several of Godin’s other books are on the shelf in the Fog Creek Library, so I’m counting it under a technicality. I happened to pick up this particular book a year ago in San Francisco from the discount rack in a book store. Seth Godin has some interesting ideas about marketing, and this book promised to relate the ideas of memetics and evolutionary biology to the world of business. But after I bought it, I got distracted, so I put it on my shelf, and it stayed there, unloved, for a long time.

Until last weekend. I was looking for something to read, and my new Amazon order had not yet arrived, so I picked it up. It’s great. Really well-written and easy to read, and completely relevant to where I am right now in my thoughts. Another one of those right-time, right-place kind of reads.

Seth Godin’s main point of this book is that change happens. And it is happening more and more. Therefore any company or person has to learn to deal with change. You can create a viable winning strategy, but that strategy will get overtaken, much like the dinosaurs got overtaken by those pesky little mammals (my analogy, not his). He points out that nature has already come up with a mechanism for dealing with continuous change in natural selection: constant change via mutation, evaluated by sexual selection and natural selection. So he recommends learning from evolution to deal with the phenomenon of accelerating change.

It was good for me to read right now, because I’m the midst of trying to change my own outlook on a bunch of things. He basically endorses the idea of rapid prototyping in life, and encourages ever faster feedback loops. Change all the time, but evaluate all the time as well. The only quibble I have with the book is that he (deliberately?) does not discuss what a proper fitness metric should be for a company or a person in evaluating which changes to keep. I think this is because it varies so much from person to person and company to company, but it does make it harder to apply his advice – I could easily see a misguided company apply all of his advice, but use the fitness metric of “reinforcing the things we have always done”, which would subvert the whole point of his other strategies.

One other point that I liked as a generalist is that he counsels against becoming an expert, because investing the energy and resources in becoming an expert means that you (or your company) has committed itself to a specific path, and therefore will be unwilling to change later. This can work for a while, and sometimes pay off spectacularly, but since all winning strategies eventually fail, it’s a race against time. If you are changing all the time, then one can continually evolve new winning strategies, and therefore not worry about when the current one will fail. Plan for the obsolescence of your strategies. It was good for me to read this perspective after reading the opposite take last month in The Only Sustainable Edge, as mentioned in this post.

So I recommend it – it’s a quick read, with a couple good ideas. I’ll probably borrow a couple other of Godin’s books from work when I get a chance.

P.S. I know I’ve said this before, but perhaps I will endeavor this week to catch up on my backlog of book reviews. My brain has been fried from too much tech support at work (new product release a couple weeks ago), so I haven’t had much in the way of original thought, and most of my brain has been caught in a fugue-like state of trying to figure out where I want to focus my energy at work. Maybe writing about my thoughts from the books I’ve been reading will help remind me what I think is important.

9 thoughts on “Survival Is Not Enough, by Seth Godin

  1. What about multiple, successive expertises? That is to say, being an expert, but in one area, and then going on and becoming an expert in the next area. That seems to make better sense.

  2. That would be ideal, if one is willing to do that. But many people aren’t – he says on p.110: “Competent people are proud of the status and success that comes with being competent. They guard their competence, and they work hard to maintain it. … Competent people resist change. Why? Because a new winning strategy threatens to make them less competent.”

    One of the many struggles in my life is the balance between focus and breadth. I obviously tend towards breadth. But one needs a certain amount of focus to succeed. It’s a tough question.

  3. I think you have to look at this kind of stuff from a certain perspective. There will always be a need for some kinds of experts (brain surgeons, pilots, cosmologists, PERL programmers) but those people should probably NOT be driving strategy, especially when it comes to marketing.

    Have you read “Now, Discover your Strengths“? This book makes a good case for different kinds of strengths people have that enable them to become experts or generalists. The kind of person who can become an expert in successive fields exists – these are the people that derive pleasure from mastering something NEW, rather than from the status derived from any kind of mastery.

  4. Constant adaptation is good for small scale, but how do you implement that in a large-scale corporate environment? Corporate beasts are notoriously slow to uptake change, and while enacting constant feedback may make those in the immediate surroundings move faster, there will inevitably be people in the corporate org chart further away from you that will adopt those changes at a slower rate (and consequently, causing an ever-growing gap between the current processes and the processes actually being used).

    As for the generalist vs. specialist, again I think that works for a small-scale business in which flexibility is required to stay alive. But again, what about in a large corporate environment? Being a generalist will get you fairly far, but unless you learn *some* specialization, you will learn that your skills may not be good enough for any one thing. What is a generalist to do in that situation? (I’m a generalist myself :D)

  5. Simple: Don’t work in a large corporate environment. Or do what I do, just consult. In my case, I am usually hired to act as a change agent, getting groups to change their behavior and/or how they interact with other groups.

  6. I have to admit I don’t have a lot of experience in a large corporate environment – I fled pretty quickly the one time I had to deal with it. I think the one thing I’d say is that there is often a lot of play within those processes that will let you attempt to adapt them to your own needs. If it’s a successful adaptation, others within the company may emulate it. Or they may get mad at you and make you jump through more silly hoops.

    The specialist thing is tough. I’m struggling with that myself, because I don’t know how to put a label on what it is I do any more. The one company where I got to do everything, I was doing software, and that was the excuse I had to be dabbling in all aspects of the company from engineering to physics to biology to management. But my strength isn’t in software per se; I’m not a good programmer. My strength was my ability to successfully take all of the contradictory requirements from those different stakeholders and reconcile them in a way that made sense. But I have no idea what to call that.

    Part of the reason I wanted to get out of programming and into management is that it seemed like a lot of the decisions being made were ignoring several stakeholders, and I didn’t have enough influence as a programmer to be in those meetings. But I still need a name for what it is I want to do. And get into a position where I can try it, for better or for worse.

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