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Sure, but that’s not a plan

The most common thing people ask me about is how to get picked, a shortcut to success, a way to spread an idea or build a platform without doing a particularly large amount of hard work.

Getting picked is fine if it happens to you. But it's not a plan. It's a version of waiting and hoping.

We're quick to claim credit for the good fortune fairy when she randomly shows up and picks us. The thing is, the good fortune fairy has to pick someone, and this time, (if you were lucky) it was you. But that's not a plan.

We can't help but amplify the stories of Hollywood and Vine, of being plucked out of obscurity, of the seventeen-year-old with talent who yes, indeed, got picked and cashed out. We blog about and talk about the one in a million YouTube viral sensation, the breakthrough that came out of nowhere overnight. But that's not a plan.

A plan involves steps that are largely under your influence and control. A plan involves the hard and dreary and difficult work of a thousand brave steps, of doing things that might not work, of connecting and caring and bringing generosity when we don't think we have any more to bring.

When your plan works, take a bow. You earned it.

Polishing perfect

Perfect doesn't mean flawless. Perfect means it does exactly what I need it to do. A vacation can be perfect even if the nuts on the plane weren't warmed before serving.

Any project that's held up in revisions and meetings and general fear-based polishing is the victim of a crime. It's a crime because you're stealing that perfect work from a customer who will benefit from it. You're holding back the good stuff from the people who need it, afraid of what the people who don't will say.

Stop polishing and ship instead. Polished perfect isn't better than perfect, it's merely shinier. And late.

Memo to the modern COO

Why is it so hard for organizations to understand what Tony did with customer service at Zappo's? Instead of measuring the call center on calls answered per minute, he insisted that the operators be trained and rewarded to take their time and actually be human, to connect and make a difference instead of merely processing the incoming.

People hear this, see the billion dollars in goodwill that was created, nod their heads and then go back to running an efficient call center. Why?

In the industrial era, the job of the chief operating officer revolved around two related functions:

  • Decrease costs
  • Increase productivity

The company knew what needed to be done, and operations was responsible for doing it. Cutting costs, increasing reliability of delivery, getting more done with less–From Taylor on, the job was pretty clear.

In the post-industrial age, when thriving organizations do something different tomorrow than they did yesterday, when the output is connection as much as stuff, the objectives are very different. In today's environment, the related functions are:

  • Increase alignment
  • Decrease fear

Alignment to the mission, to the culture, to what we do around here–this is critical, because in changing times, we can't rely on a static hierarchy to manage people. We have to lead them instead, we have to put decision making power as 'low' (not a good word, but it's left over from the industrial model) in the organization as possible.

As the armed forces have discovered, it's the enlisted man in the village that wins battles (and hearts and minds) now, not the general with his maps and charts. Giving your people the ability to make decisions and connections is impossible in a command and control environment.

And a decrease in fear, because this is the reason that we're stuck, that we fail, that our best work is left unshipped. Your team might know what to do, might have an even better plan than the one on the table, but our innate fear of shipping shuts all of that down.

So we go to meetings and wait for someone else to take responsibility. We seek deniability before we seek impact. The four-letter word that every modern organization must fear is: hide.

Our fear of being wrong, of opening up, of creating the vulnerability that leads to connection–we embrace that fear when we go to work, in fact, that's the main reason people take a job instead of going out on their own. The fear is someone else's job.

Except now it's not.

Worst one ever

Forty years ago today was my first bout of speaking in front of an audience. (And as I remember it, I approached it as a fight, not an opportunity.) I was distracted, nervous and not particularly well received.

It was an epic fail. Friends and relatives agreed that I wasn't engaged or engaging, certainly a performance not to be repeated.

I ignored the part about not repeating it, but I definitely learned some valuable lessons about confidence and engagement.

Just about anything worth doing is worth doing better, which means, of course, that (at least at first) there will be failure. That's not a problem (in the long run), it's merely a step along the way.

If you're not willing to get your 'worst one ever' out of the way, how will you possibly do better than that?

America’s Favorite Mushroom

That's what it said on the side of the semi roaring down the highway.

Does America even have a favorite mushroom? As in, "no, I don't want those mushrooms on my pizza… they're not my favorite brand."

Empty slogans, carefully constructed brags, assertions that don't matter—this is not effective marketing.

MidamericaThere's no question that people respond to safety and mass acceptance. The #1 seller often stays number one merely because it's already number one. But no, you don't need to add emotion when there is none, because to do so, you often have to sacrifice trust.

The weird tail continues

In We Are All Weird, I argued that many factors are pushing us to get ever less normal, at least when it comes to cultural choices and what we buy, what we do and who we do it with. The bell curve that for so long defined mass is melting, with the outliers gaining in number, credibility and impact.

When you give people a choice, they will take it.

One big reason: the web lets us see what the other weird folks are doing, pushing us to get weirder still.

Recent data on naming released by the Social Security Administration puts this into sharp relief. The top 1000 baby names include go-to standards like Zylin, Zymari, Zyrin, Zyrus and Zytaevius. That's not surprising, because, after all, 1,000 names is a lot of names.

What's surprising is that over the last ten years, the percentage of names that don't fall within the top 1,000 keep rising. That means that more and more people are opting out of the popular naming regime, forging their own path. It used to be weird to name your kid Elvis. Now, Zyrin isn't weird enough, because we're ever more aware of where the edges lie.

Same is true with the shows we watch, the books we read and the foods we eat.

If you're chasing the masses, you're almost certainly heading the wrong direction. The masses are ignoring you. It's the weird who are choosing to pay attention, to seek out what they care about.

Reality is not a show

The media-pundit-advertiser industrial cycle has discovered that turning life into a sporting event (with winners and losers, villians and heroes and most of all, black and white issues) is profitable.

By turning our life into a game and our issues into drama, the punditocracy and the media-industrial complex profits. And the rest of us lose.

Politics get this treatment, but so do natural disasters, poverty and even technology.

How long does it take after an event occurs before the spinning starts? And because we've seen the spinning acted out on such a large scale, we begin to do it ourselves. We create office drama that replaces the real-life nuance of difficult decisions, and we seek out wins in our personal life when life is always about compromise.

This is dehumanizing, because it turns pathos into ratings and makes just about everyone into 'the other', not someone deserving more than clicks, linkbait and trolling.

It's so easy to boil whatever happened down to a finite number of characters, to engage in online debates with people we'll never meet and to gamify just about everything.

I'm not sure there's any number of Facebook likes that can replace a hug.

The 5000th post*

I've done this longer than any professional project I can remember, and I still consider it a joy and a privilege. I write and edit every word myself, and always have. This is me, unvarnished.

Thank you for letting me write this blog for you, and thank you for being along for the ride.

Showing up daily isn't my challenge–it's learning to live with the fact that I can't say everything I want in a single post, that the trade-off of reaching people easily is that you can also lose people easily. It's a journey, for both of us, and I'm thrilled to be taking it with you.

Here's how I was thinking about this 3,650 days ago. And a few posts about the arc of my blog.

You can find a ton of favorites, including videos, here.

I asked my colleague, Bernadette Jiwa to nominate five other posts that have really stood out over the years:

Five years from now…

Ode: How to tell a great story

Make something happen

I spread your idea because…

Reject the tyranny of being picked: pick yourself

My biggest surprise? That more people aren't doing this. Not just every college professor (particularly those in the humanities and business), but everyone hoping to shape opinions or spread ideas. Entrepreneurs. Senior VPs. People who work in non-profits. Frustrated poets and unknown musicians… Don't do it because it's your job, do it because you can.

The selfishness of the industrial age (scarcity being the thing we built demand upon, and the short-term exchange of value being the measurement) has led many people to question the value of giving away content, daily, for a decade or more. And yet… I've never once met a successful blogger who questioned the personal value of what she did.

For me, the privilege is sharing what I notice, without the pressure of having to nail it every time… I treasure the ability to say, "this might not work."

While it's tempting to swing for the fences and hit a grand slam, particularly on post 5,000, I'm going to resist, as I try to resist every day. Drip, drip, drip.

Are you soaked yet?

PS There are two inexpensive collections of my best blog posts, which some readers find a good way to catch up.

They're not instantly searchable, but neither do they require an internet connection.

PPS My email box is now officially broken, and I'm just no longer going to be able to answer all of my incoming email. This is the curse of asymmetry, and I apologize for not being able to keep up.

*If every one of my posts was a dollar bill and you stacked them in
bundles, they'd be about 24 inches tall. Hmmm. Let me try to be more hyperbolic… That's a post for every
floor in the Empire State Building. Fifty times.

Self service requires information, which requires design

Consider travel as an example:

If you've arranged the flights on the monitor in order of flight time, not destination, requiring me to stop and take out my ticket, you have failed.

If you've hidden the room numbers (or given them fancy names) so that only an employee can find the right spot, you've failed as well.

The label on prescription drugs, the instructions post-doctor visit, the manual for using software or putting together furniture–if we're getting rid of service and turning it into self-service, we owe it to our newly deputized employees (our customers) to give them the tools they need to not need us.

Sure, you need someone in charge of customer service. But you also need someone in charge of service design. Someone responsible for fixing what's broken, not merely apologizing for it again and again.

It's not cheap, but it's way cheaper than answering the phone or annoying the people who pay our bills.

The free-rider benefit

You're probably familiar with the free-rider problem. That's what economists call a situation in which someone benefits from the entire community paying for something without contributing themselves. It becomes a problem when others feel like suckers and then similarly drop out.

Cheating on your taxes is a classic example. You get to ride on the roads and benefit from the civilization that others are paying for. One non-participant won't crash the system, but if it spreads…

Not vaccinating your kids is a similarly selfish act. In an affluent community, a few free-riders probably don't cause much damage because if most kids are vaccinated, the disease won't spread. But, as we've seen in the battle to eradicate polio, when more than a few people don't contribute (in this case, by being vaccinated), we all lose.

Media, though, feels different. In Grand Central there are tall metal cages at the exit from each rail car, designed to collect already read newspapers. It's actually against the law to remove a paper (if you could, the sides are too high) and read it.

I'm sure someone at a newspaper fought hard for this, figuring that everyone should buy their very own paper. The thing is, newspapers don't make much profit on the sale of the paper, they make money selling eyeballs to advertisers. If more and more people read each copy of the paper, the audience would go up, ad rates could rise and they'd actually come out ahead in the long run.

Or consider Wikipedia. Almost everyone who uses Wikipedia (hundreds of millions of people) fails to contribute cash to run it, and they also fail to edit or contribute to the content of the site. At first, this feels wrong. Here's the thing: one more reader costs Wikipedia virtually nothing, and the people who are donating and the people who are editing are doing it precisely because a lot of people read it. If the only people who read it were the people who were contributing, people would stop contributing.

This blog is read mostly by people who have not bought my books. That's generally okay with me because I don't write the blog to sell books, but it's also okay because it turns out that the fact that lots of people read the blog makes my ideas and books more attractive to those that do buy them. Readers know that a better understanding of my ideas might just help them be part of a larger conversation, so the investment and time and money seems a lot less risky.

Or consider the art museum that prohibits photography, ostensibly to keep unpaid guests from seeing what's inside. The thing is, for many people it's more fun to visit a museum filled with famous images, isn't it?

Take a second to reconsider the funnel mindset. A marketer who thinks about the funnel realizes that she needs 100 people in at the top to get ten in the middle to end up with just one paid customer at the bottom. A leaky funnel is a real problem, because it costs a lot of money to keep putting people in at the top. But what if instead of a funnel, we imagine a two-part market? One part is actively participating, supporting and partaking, all because the second part is busy free riding.

There are edge cases everywhere that make the free-rider benefit seem a lot less beneficial. Wholesale piracy, deliberate theft of services–many organizations and business models can't thrive in a world of anonymous taking. On the other hand, once you can get your head (and your heart) around the idea that ideas that spread, win, there are significant opportunities in a digital world where it's easier than ever to help people go for a free ride.