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Confusion about performance

The thing that your product or service delivers could be called performance, and it’s made of two components:

–The story and expectations and cultural impact of what you do (the story).

–The deliverables that are objectively measured (the spec).

It helps to have both.

Many hard-working freelancers are confused about their story. Either they insist that their work is even better than it is, and they’re frustrated when others don’t embrace it, or they undersell the value of their presence, professionalism and effort.

And many institutions, particularly those that measure the wrong things, put an enormous effort into what the lab specs show, but forget to invest in a narrative that encourages consumers to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Reimagining cities in a few simple questions

What would happen if public transportation were free?

What if it were paid for by congestion pricing, digitally implemented?

What if public toilets were safe, beautiful, well-appointed and consistently maintained?

What if there were a tax on empty storefronts, payable after three months of vacancy?

Shortly after the invention of the car, society made many decisions about how cities should work. These choices led to parking lots, suburbs and a definition of what a normal city was supposed to be like. Robert Moses and others pushed for a specific sort of urban environment.

It’s surprising how quickly and inexpensively that could begin to change.

Doing the same thing since the dawn of the expressway, year after year, without seeing the pattern, is a little Groundhog’s Dayish.

It helps to see it and then to talk about it.

Don’t know, don’t care

Clients and customers can be frustrating.

Perhaps they don’t know what you know.

Perhaps they don’t care.

It’s possible to educate and inspire.

It might be more productive to find the few that want to go where you do.

Get/Want/Have To

Get to, want to and have to are an endless braid.

How much of our time do we spend on each?

Have to is often up to someone else. The things we’re required to do by the system or the people in it.

Get to is a matter of perspective. Trust and health and leverage and privilege allow us to do certain things that others might not.

And want to is a choice, and is often squandered. When our day is drawing to a close and we’ve done everything we have to, the choice of how to spend/invest/waste the next few minutes often ends up with mindless stalling or entertainment.

The magic trick begins with realizing that the get to tasks are priceless want to moments if we choose. And, if we’re careful and plan ahead, we can get to the point where the have to agenda is something we can eagerly look forward to.

When all three are in sync, things get better.

Population and big innovations

It’s tempting to embrace the meme that the best way for humans to solve the big problems in front of us is to increase the population, perhaps dramatically. The thinking goes that people are the ones who can solve problems, and more people give us more problem-solvers.

This doesn’t hold up to a reductio ad absurdum analysis: clearly, a population of 10 people isn’t as good at solving problems as one with a billion, but at the same time, if there were a trillion people on Earth, that wouldn’t last long. There must be a number that’s optimal, but it’s probably not the biggest number we can possibly create.

And reviewing the data on Nobel prizes per capita, or patents per capita, we see that there isn’t a correlation between population density and productive breakthrough innovation. It looks like innovations are more likely the result of a civil society, sufficient resources, enough productivity to enable spending on R&D and a culture of research and engineering.

We also see geographic hotbeds of innovation over time (physics in Germany a hundred years ago, or network innovations in Silicon Valley a decade ago) that are the result of information exchange and cultural expectations, not population density.

We don’t get these results by stretching the carrying capacity of our one and only planet. We can’t shrink our way to possibility, but we probably can’t get there via exponential expansion either.

The coming ubiquity

The fuss about AI might be mis-focused.

It’s easy to point to a computer-created essay, song or illustration and find the defects or errors. Given hard work by 1,000 trained people, it’s likely that a human could make something more useful or inspired than a computer could.

But the real impact of AI isn’t going to be that it regularly and consistently does far better than the best human effort.

The impact will be that it is widespread, cheap and always there.

Search for anything and the Wikipedia page will ‘write itself’ just for you.

Brainstorm 12 variations of a solution to any problem you’re thinking about. Have a Rogerian therapist and idea coach on call at all times.

Press a button on your fridge and see a dozen recipes that use what’s in the produce drawer, and just that.

Everywhere, all the time.

Ubiquity is the quiet change we rarely see coming.

New ways to codify purpose

And then what happens?

Many small businesses start with generosity and good intent at their core. But it’s a rough ride, and especially when outside funding is involved, it’s easy to get seduced by the bright lights of Milton Friedman and an obsession with short-term profits.

Over time, purpose starts to fade. The urgencies and demands of quarterly results, the opportunities for growth followed by more growth make it ever more difficult to stick with what we set out to do in the first place.

This post from Ari Weinzweig highlights a different way to stay on track, adding a level of structure to the good intent. It takes the sometimes mushy language of a B Corp and makes it legally and permanently part of the deal.

By codifying the structure from the start, we’re creating organizations that have boundaries. Boundaries aren’t necessarily a defect–they can be a feature. A boundary gives us something to lean against (leverage) and it also communicates to our constituents exactly what we’re here to do.

For a long time, we’ve been evolving in only one direction–companies that seek nothing but short-term investor returns, but do a lot of hand-waving along the way.

In a post-industrial business environment where people are more important than machines and where the consequence of our work are more vivid, it makes sense to bring intent to the forefront and keep it there.

Hobson’s choice

…is no choice at all.

The stable owner gets to pick which horse you get. Take it or leave it.

Some people prefer this. It means that we’re off the hook and not responsible. It relieves us of the emotional labor of choice. Let someone else worry about it…

And so we give up our agency and our freedom, simply to avoid responsibility.

The thing is, there is still a choice: The choice of whether or not to go into the stable in the first place.

Every time we choose a job, cast a ballot (or choose not to), or select a path, we’re making a choice. What happens after that is still our responsibility.

Pay what you want

It’s a fascinating payment model. For digital goods and other transactions where the marginal cost of one more sale approaches zero, “pay what you want” exposes how complicated the story we tell about money can be. When we add in the charity component, it becomes even more layered.

The Best of Akimbo (volume 1) is now available as a pay-what-you-want download. 100% of what you pay is a donation that goes directly to charity: water. The details are all here.

There are more than five years worth of weekly episodes of my Akimbo podcast now available, and my producer Alex DiPalma and I have put together a five-episode best of. No ads, of course, no QA, just some culture-gazing you can dive into and even share. Other episodes are available wherever you get your podcasts.

To date, readers of this blog have helped 34,000 people get a reliable source of clean water, with more than a million dollars donated so far. It’s hard to imagine something more generous, more life-changing or more urgent than bringing water to someone who needs it. Thank you.

Grandiosity as a form of hiding

A business that says its mission is to, “reinvent local commerce to better serve our customers and neighborhoods,” can spend a lot of time doing not much of anything before they realize that they’re not actually creating value.

A non-profit that seeks to create “fairness and equity” can also fall into a non-specific trap.

Far more useful to say, “we sell a good cup of coffee at a fair price,” and see if you can pull that off first.

Google claims they want to organize the world’s information. But they began by simply building a search engine that people would switch to.

We need a goal. But the more specific and measurable, the better.