Tools, Not Rules: How Not to Use Business Cases


ImageA few months ago, some friends were waxing poetically about the virtues of Apple’s business model as described in Inside Apple. (I swear this is the last Apple-related post for a while.)  All work is done by small teams, with a directly responsible individual for each project. Apple works in great secrecy–even from other Apple employees–in order to surprise the public. In order to keep focus on the core products, Apple has only one P&L. Clearly, Apple had cracked the code on running a business correctly, and the proof was in the products.

But there was a dissenting voice. Ray Girn, the CEO of LePort Schools and one of the most extensive business book readers I know, said that he could cite examples from other businesses where the opposite was the key to their massive success: large and inclusive teams, transparency, multiple P&Ls. I asked Ray what he thought was the right way to run a business, and he said that he thought LePort had gotten some things right but he was still figuring that out.

Aside from that question, I basically stayed silent through the conversation. Which is sort of awkward when your job is to have answers to these kinds of problems. But I’m increasingly playing with the idea that the problem is in the question. Perhaps there is no right answer to how to run a company.

So does that mean I’ve given up, that I should turn in my business consultant merit badge and accept that success is a matter of luck and no lessons can be learned from others’ successes? Of course not. But I think it’s better to view these business techniques as tools. Just as a successful carpenter has a giant bag full of hammers, mallets, and screwdrivers (and Phillips head screwdrivers and 20 mm Phillips head screwdrivers), a successful business person has learned many techniques. Further, just as that successful carpenter knows when and why to use a hammer versus a mallet, a business person is also a craftsman knowing when and why to use the different techniques.

To give an example, let’s look at the focus on small teams in Apple, with one person directly responsible. These allow the project team to get things done quickly, without having to worry about the endless levels of bureaucracy that burden most companies. The obvious dogma from this: all work should be done in small teams at all companies. But you can find examples of the value of large teams even within Apple. Every Monday morning, the top executives from Apple spend the entire day reviewing the status of every project. They do this so that all of leadership is on the same page about what is happening and what the priorities are, lest the company become splintered into competing fiefdoms. Small teams can work nimbly; large teams can all work on the same page. Studying Apple’s success ultimately doesn’t give us universal rules but demonstrations of cause and effect, in a specific situation. Philosopher Greg Salmieri once told me that real problem of generalization is figuring out under just what circumstances something is true.

This is important for me to keep in mind as I study businesses and advocate the techniques to JetBlue. Secrecy, for example,  would destroy JetBlue’s super-open culture. We give hugs freely and talk about our work casually, and that is right for us: a happy, supportive culture leads to a happy, supportive approach to Customer Service. But smaller teams and directly responsible individuals to increase speed? It’s an interesting question how we could do more of that, and Apple makes an interesting case study.

One caveat to all of this: I haven’t given up on the idea of universal laws of business. I suspect that those universal laws would have to do with the one thing all businesses have in common: people. My best candidates right now for universal laws would be that workers need to be motivated, have clear goals, and have the skills to do the job (even if that skill might be simply the ability to learn).

Pretty simple and almost self-evident. But the interesting guidance comes in how you do those things–when does a clear goal mean giving a teammate a specific solution to execute versus giving that teammate a specific problem to solve? It depends. What are the circumstances, and what are you trying to achieve? But if you can move to a tools perspective and really understand both techniques, then you have options.


Design vs. Leadership: The Curious Case of Steve Jobs



One of my favorite reads of the last week was this description of working with Steve Jobs. The conclusion hit me with a big “Of course.”

“That is what I remember most about Steve, that he simply loved designing and shipping products. Again, and again, and again. None of the magic that has become Apple would have ever happened if he were simply a CEO. Steve’s magic recipe was that he was a product designer at his core, who was smart enough to know that the best way to design products was to have the magic wand of CEO in one of your hands. He was compelling and powerful and all that, but I think that having once had the reigns of power wrestled away from him, he realized that it was important not to let that happen again, lest he not be allowed to be a Product Manager any more.”

I worked through several hundred pages of Walter Isaacson psychobabble about the source of his impatience and poor treatment of others, and the answer is so much simpler than rage at being adopted or whatnot. Jobs was a designer who became CEO out of necessity and never figured out how to reconcile the tension between them (and maybe never cared to).

Designing and leading are very different modes of action. I say this both from my observations of people who are good at each and from my personal experiences.

Designing benefits from having the shortest distance possible between emotion and action. A good brainstorming session is five people in a room bubbling with new ideas and suggestions for improving others’. It is exciting and incredibly satisfying, though I also find it often frustrating along the way. You have a sense of what good would feel like, and you ain’t there yet. So that frustration drives you, generating new ideas that might get you to good. Stanford’s d. School emphasizes quantity of ideas and speed, and these both come from being very connected to your emotions.

Leadership benefits from having a long distance between emotion and action. As a leader, your every action impacts the people that get things done, and  acting emotionally means acting without really considering whether you are taking into account each individuals’  needs or the team dynamic as a whole. The best leadership I’ve seen has come from a quiet person listening, distilling a room full of drama to two or three key points, and making the unsolvable solvable.

That doesn’t mean that leadership is unemotional. Far from it. Leadership starts with caring about the goal and the people executing it. It continues with the same kind of excitement and frustration at things going well or badly. But I think that emotion always needs to be checked against your understanding, and that takes time.

It sounds like Jobs led as a designer. From “Inside Apple,” it sounds like this extends not just to designing amazing products but to an amazing company as well (their Monday meetings reviewing every product with all execs are genius). And in leading others, it sounds like he often acted too quickly from his emotion, calling someone a “genius” one second and a “bozo” the next–the same kind of swing between excitement and frustration that drives a designer. But in applying this to people, you come across as erratic, demoralizing, unfair. Good thing that he designed a company with so much opportunity for others to do great work that people were willing to suck it up and deal.

This raises an issue: how do you merge the two together and be a good leader of design? Is it a swing between acting emotionally and acting thoughtfully? Is it about understanding the design process but giving up your role in it so that you can focus on getting the most out of others?

My best assessment: I think it’s probably a bit of both–leadership skills and design skills are both tools that you have to have at the ready based on whatever is needed from the situation. As always, the goal is king. But I’d be curious to hear from any leaders of design out there.


Everything Good Starts with Listening


Man uses an ear trumpet

I’ve been reflecting recently on what’s worked for me in 2012 that I need to continue. And I’ve come to one big conclusion: everything good starts with listening.

Without a doubt, my 2012 work highlight was the leadership course I developed for JetBlue’s Captains, which was challenging because:

1. I didn’t know anything about being a Captain.

2. I certainly didn’t know anything about what it meant for a Captain to be a leader.

And so I hung out with Captains, asked a thousand questions, read their reports, and ultimately went to the first week of their Orientation. It paid off in participants actually finding something useful in the class, and an early class assumed I actually was a Captain.

Design thinking calls this “empathy.” In the empathy phase of a project, you are aiming not just for knowledge but for a deeper sense of what somebody’s actual needs are. A good design thinker’s antennae go up when they hear someone expressing any kind of strong emotion. They then pounce with questions or detailed field observations to understand where those emotions are coming from. You can consider yourself successful if you’ve identified something that the person themself does not know about their needs. From here, you have a good base from which to work.

I see the opposite all the time. A designer just jumps into making something without doing the preparation of getting to know the customer. This essentially means one of two things: you are designing for your own needs (which can work) or you are designing based on a trend or an assumption or an article you read somewhere. Namely, you’re designing to an abstraction, rather than to a person.

Incidentally, I also regularly quote Merlin Mann’s principle about doing good work: “First, care.” It seems like a contradiction to have two first steps, except they’re actually the same first step. Caring comes from a deep investment in a problem, which comes from investigation. I don’t understand the problems of transportation in Denver and thus don’t care and would do a poor job of solving them.

Though part of me now wants to look up what those problems are. And then go visit Denver and watch commuters struggle. I should probably nip that one in the bud.


The Four Horsemen of Procrastination



When I asked around about a topic for my first Skillshare class last year, the issue that everyone complained about was procrastination. It seems like all my coworkers and loved ones live in constant guilt about things they aren’t getting around to. One year later, I’m ready to leave the topic but not before capturing what I’ve learned through research and my students’ experiences.

The big thing I learned is that there isn’t one phenomenon called procrastination, with one cause and one solution. Rather, I think there are four, which present themselves in different ways. As a dutiful self-improvement writer, I have arranged them into an acronym: BOTS. Each one took up twenty minutes in class, and I still felt like I was cramming in a lot, so I apologize in advance for the whiplash.

1) Blankness:
If you are delaying the start of a task, the first question is whether you actually feel like doing it. Assuming that the task actually IS a priority, then you have to find some way to bring back all the enthusiasm you once felt. There’s limited space in your mind, and it’s very easy for your passion to write the great American novel to be momentarily replaced by a passion for a great American slice of pizza.

That feeling of blankness is the phenomenon I have struggled most with explaining, and all I can offer here are leads. Passion is dependent on seeing how your actions will lead to a result you consider amazing. It helps to have some kind of short cut to help yourself see that. Companies are onto this with the idea of mission statements–“organizing the world’s information” must have been tremendously motivating to the early employees at Google. And I think it helps a lot to have a personal mission statement–mine is “helping people make fundamental improvements.” There’s something about helping people at a root level that gets me going, and capturing your motivation in a short statement is enormously valuable. I can even shorten it to “fundamental” and that implies everything else to me.

It also helps to have some kind of art that captures your mission symbolicly, because you respond to art in an emotional, very motivating way. My personal example I return to–don’t laugh–is from the end of the film Serenity, when a character acts at an incredible skill level in a way that is presented as beautiful. I’ve also held pieces of music and paintings in this way, and I think that real-life heroes or accomplishments can work as well. The important thing is to select something specific to have at the ready in addition to the more abstract mission statement.

2) Overwhelmed:
This is the key insight of David Allen’s book “Getting Things Done,” that a lot of productivity is lost due to feeling like you have an endless, unorganized task list that all needs to be completed rightthissecond. Allen’s system helps you to organize those tasks in a way that allows you to set them aside and get to a place he calls “mind like water,” where you are just focused on the one thing at a time.

Consider this section of the post an outright plug for David Allen’s book. I have my own variations to the system, but essentially, I don’t have much to say here that he didn’t first.

3) Tedium:
Some tasks need to be done but are just annoying–repetitive tasks especially fit into this category. I hate it. I’m not a fan of the saying, “That’s why they call it work.” Clearly, these tasks need to be minimized as much as possible, through saying no or through delegation. But I think that some tedium is probably unavoidable.

I think this is where gamification and rewards live. Given a stack of envelopes to address, try to see just how many envelopes you can label in an hour and then reward yourself with a cup of coffee when you are finished. Then get back to work and try to beat that time (I am assuming here that you don’t like labeling envelopes and love coffee. Because I am assuming you’re sane). If the work itself is not intrinsically enjoyable, then some kind of external value is necessary. Social visibility is great for the gamification aspect–leaderboards, cohort groups, even reporting to your significant other the number of envelopes you addressed in the last hour (you may get a blank stare and a “that’s nice, sweety”).

4) Self-consciousness:
Toward the end of Randy Pausch’s great Time Management lecture, Randy says, “We don’t really procrastinate because we’re lazy…there’s always a deep psychological reason. Usually because I’m afraid of being embarassed or because I think I’m going to fail at it.”

This is self-consciousness. There are two separate aspects of the completion of a project–the creation and the judgement of what you’ve made so that you can revise and improve it. Properly, a project proceeds in iterations of creation, judgement of the product as it is, research, revision, further judgement, etc. You can think of self-consciousness as (negative) judgement before you’ve even made something. So here the solution is to actually commit to an iterative approach. Commit to it before you’ve even begun. If your first draft is bad, that’s great! You’ve made a first draft and you actually have something to work on. Commit to that and just focus on multiple cycles of improvement, at the end of which you may actually have a product you’re proud of.

What to do with BOTS:
The trick to getting off your butt when you don’t feel like working is identifying which of the four you’re experiencing. Which is easier said than done. Introspection is hard, though it does get easier the more you do it. But the reward is huge: a life of productivity and, just as important, passion.


Social Skills for Geeks


In the 90s, being a poser was the worst thing you could possibly be. Growing up then instilled in me a deep respect for authenticity and a deep-seated disdain for anyone that was not 100% genuine. Which created a really hard problem for me when I committed to teaching for a living.

Teaching requires social skills, which I will loosely define here as the art of comfortable conversation with a relative stranger. If you don’t feel comfortable around me as a student, you will shut down. And then it doesn’t matter how interesting my topic is or how valuable my material is. You’re closed off to me. So I need you to connect with me. A lot of careers require this skill–project manager, artist selling your work, essentially any that involve interaction with others.

There are common approaches to connecting with people that I think lead to suspicion: agreeing with someone else’s views whatever they might be, for example, or trying to adopt their persona. For a great example, see Saturday Night Live’s skit of Chris Christie endorsing Mitt Romney, to the disappointment of a news corps that would clearly prefer the fun-loving Christie to the straight and narrow Romney. Everyone laughs affectionately when Christie says he loves “you meatballs.” The crowd goes silent when Romney awkwardly tries to capture the same love by addressing “you balls of meat.”

The solution

What I do in causal settings, what I suspect the socially adept superstars like Oprah and George Clooney do, is look for things I genuinely find interesting in other people. For example, I have a deep interest in the day to day challenges of different careers. The more I understand about the daily work of a designer or an entrepreneur or a doctor, the better I can get at designing classes for them. The simple and socially acceptable question, “What do you do day to day?” is a treasure trove for me. I ask that question and then just follow my curiosity depending on whatever they say.

But let’s say you couldn’t give a damn about other careers. You’re a programmer, and what you like to do is solve the puzzles your job affords you, and that’s about all you care to know about the work place. As a side note, I would say you’re missing out. Understanding others’ careers is helpful to anyone. But the world is an interesting place, and other people are doorways to lots of things. What do you want to know? Are you a foodie? Steer the conversation toward the last good place someone ate. Interested in different areas of the country? Steer the conversation to where the person might have lived. It helps to have some standby questions, so if you have a second, you may want to think about what those might be for you.

The threats

That’s the positive advice. There are also two things worth noting that could get in your way: social anxiety and first impressions. To the best of my knowledge, social anxiety comes down to one thing–fear of others’ judgment. Will they think I’m smart, funny, cultured, whatever? My personal concern for a while was talent. My friends, recognizing this, decided to take advantage by putting me up to ridiculous challenges like eating an entire ball of wasabi or doing a backflip. Which I would then always accept and frequently regret. Friends are great.

The reason anxiety is a problem is that you are judging your performance while you are performing, which just shuts down the entire operation. Trying to socialize while worrying about your social “value” is like trying to talk while focusing on every muscle movement required to speak. Action and self-analysis are both important but you can only do one at a time (I can think of examples that seem like exceptions, but I don’t think they actually are).

The solution is largely to commit to step number one–focusing on the other person. If what’s on your mind is their value, you can’t focus on their judgement. Further, when you do find something you want to talk about, the conversation takes on a life of its own.

But your anxiety might be too much to push away. In the moment of conversation, there’s not much you can do about that, but it’s certainly something you can work on another time. Anxiety is a big topic, and there’s an entire profession devoted to helping people get over it. But I think the most important thing is to identify the very fact that you are anxious and figure out why. What is the scenario you are fearing? But there’s a lot more to be said about that another time.

The last thing is first impressions. And that’s about clothing and hygiene. I don’t want to say too much about this because they’re not exactly my area of expertise, but they are a big part of a stranger’s perception of you. My credibility at JetBlue skyrocketed the day I started ironing. I would enlist the opinion of someone you trust and just ask how you’re coming off. If you are okay with your dirty hoodie and tattered jeans giving off a first impression that you’re a high schooler that hates the world, then that’s how that is. But you may want to wash them and start brushing your teeth.


The Process of Having Good Ideas


Some interesting leads in this Animate of Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From.” (HT: Scott Adams)

Johnson researched the process of individuals who had a famously good idea and boils it down to:

1) Have a hunch.

2) Nurture that hunch and others like it.

3) Tell a community of like-minded individuals about the hunch.

4) Collaborate.

I’m sure (or I hope, anyway) that there’s more detail in Johnson’s book because I have a lot of unanswered questions, such as where he thinks hunches come from.

But there are a lot of interesting observations here toward a better understanding of thinking:

1) A hunch is an incomplete idea.  This makes a lot of sense. A big idea relates a lot of observations and other ideas together. Gravity required understanding in great detail the motion of the planets, the observation that objects of different mass fall at the same rate, and a host of other things. If you don’t have everything, you may have the sense that the pieces fit together somehow and you have some idea of how, but you don’t actually have the idea.

2) There is intellectual value to working with others. In my work at JetBlue, we promote the goal of healthy conflict of ideas. Thinking is an act of asking and answering a lot of questions. Working with another person at very least means they’re doing some of that work for you, but more than that, they’re probably asking different questions than you and pushing your thinking into places you otherwise wouldn’t go.

Really curious to read more. I’m reading a different book now (on the creation process of designers), but maybe this is the next one.


15 Scientific Facts About Creativity | Online Universities


15 Scientific Facts About Creativity.

Interesting collection of findings about creativity. I find most interesting the connection of creativity to language centers. Creativity to me is about generating a lot of solutions–in a process not that different from speaking–and then judging and editing until you actually have something good. (HT: Skillshare)

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