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Misunderstanding quality

Kodak, of course, ruled their world. They were as close to a monopoly as they could get for generations.

Along the way, though, the company made the mistake of misdefining quality. They thought that what would ensure their future was better fidelity film. And without a doubt, they delivered on the promise of ever better film stock, with all the things a professional photographer could hope for.

Polaroid, for a while a disruptive competitor of Kodak's, fell into precisely the same trap. As they gained market share, they doubled down on image quality, raising their prices to support cameras and film that would compete with Kodak's leadership in fidelity.

It turns out that what people actually wanted was the ability to take and share billions of photos at vanishingly small cost. The 'quality' that most of the customer base wanted was cheap and easy, not museum quality.

This confusion happens all the time. Quality is not an absolute measure. It doesn't mean 'deluxeness' or 'perfection'. It means keeping the promise the customer wants you to make.

No decisions, no responsibility

We presume.

Human beings take shortcuts and believe in stereotypes. Sometimes we misjudge someone as dumb, who isn't, or unsuccessful, who is far from it. Too often, we make grave errors, disrespect our fellows and lose out on opportunities because we're too busy judging.

The way the authorities treated Aditya Mukerjee a few weeks ago will/should make you shudder. This goes far beyond one person relying on stereotypes, though. It's an indictment of how too many organizations work.

I don't think we can assume that the people we hire will somehow lose their prejudices. I do think, though, that we ought to build systems where the system itself works against those stereotypes, instead of amplifying them.

Throughout his story, we encounter individuals who should have known better, professionals who should have been trained and monitored, but most of all, we see a typical bureaucracy. People who refuse to make decisions and who are absolved of responsibility for their actions (or non-actions).

TSA, TSA, TSA, NYPD, NYPD, FBI, JetBlue, TSA, NYPD… in this parade of uncaring cops and bureaucrats, wasn't there one person who could grab Aditya a glass of water? One person who could talk to him like a fellow human, like a fellow citizen? In the many hours that he was held, why didn't even one person stand up and say, "wait!"

We presume. And often, we're just wrong.

There are only two choices available to any large organization:

1. Hire people who make no original decisions but be damn sure that if they are going to run by the book, the book better be perfect. And build in reviews to make sure that everyone is indeed playing by the book, with significant monitoring and consequences in place for when they don't.

2. Hire people who care and give them the freedom and responsibility to act. Hold people responsible for the decisions they make, and trust their judgment.

We can do better, all of us. We better hurry.

Getting smart about the time tax

If you want to go to Shakespeare in the Park in New York, you need to really want to go.

That's because it's free. Well, mostly free. They use a time-honored tradition to be sure that the tickets are allocated to people who truly want them: they tax the interested by having them wait on line, for hours sometimes.

It seems egalitarian, but it's actually regressive, because it doesn't take into account the fact that different people value their time differently. People with time to spare are far more likely to be rewarded.

Another example: Call the company that sells your favorite tech brand and ask for customer service. You'll be on hold for one to sixty minutes. Why do they do this? They can obviously afford to answer the phone right away, can't they?

Like the mom who waits for the sixth whine before responding to her kid, these companies are making sure that only people who really and truly need/want to talk to them actually get talked to. Everyone else hangs up long before that.

You can hear the CFO, "well, if we answered on the first ring, more people would call!"

Again, at first glance, this seems like a smart way to triage with limited resources. But once again, it misses the opportunity to treat different people differently. Shouldn't the really great customer, or the person about to buy a ton of items get their call answered right away? The time tax is a bludgeon, a blunt instrument that can't discriminate.

We don't need to make people wait in line for anything if we don't want to. Why not have the most eager theater goers trade the three hours they'd spend in line in exchange for tutoring some worthwhile kid instead? Instead of wasting all that time, we could see tens of thousands of people trading the lost time for a ticket and a chance to do something useful. (Money is just one way to adjudicate the time tax problem, but there are plenty of other resources people can trade to get to the head of the line).

This logic of scarcity can be applied to countless situations. First-come, first-served is non-digital, unfair and expensive. And yet we still use it all the time, in just about everyone situation where there is scarcity.

The opportunity isn't to auction off everything to the highest bidder, but it might lie in understanding who is waiting and what they're willing to trade for the certainty and satisfaction of getting out of line. [A great example].

When in doubt, treat different customers differently.

120 seconds (shipping vs. rushing)

If you have a ten-mile commute to work, the difference between pushing yourself to drive 40 miles an hour and driving safely at 35 works out to about two minutes. In the first scenario, you're running yellow lights, passing bicyclists and rolling stop signs. In the second, you're not only dramatically safer, but you're also breathing.

Decades ago, when I had a Saab, I used to drive fast (95 mph fast) on trips home to Buffalo. The highway is straight and designed for speed, but it was an incredibly stupid, selfish and dangerous thing to do. The upside was that I ended my trip from Boston an hour or two faster than I would have otherwise. Of course, then I'd sit, nearly in a stupor, for at least two hours until the world was moving slowly enough for me to engage again.

The problem with setting the standard at super-fast, up to 11, is that you can't sustain it. You've extracted all the slack and safety out of the system and gotten very little in return.

Of course, this isn't true if you're actually in a race, if responding to the RFP first or getting around the track a nanosecond faster is actually the point. But for most of us, most of the time, it's not actually a race.

The other extreme is the one I rant about often, the extreme of not shipping, of going slowly because you're afraid, of stalling as a way of avoiding the fear of feedback and the need for vulnerability. That clearly doesn't work either.

Yes, ship. Do it with flair and guts and grace. But take two more minutes before you do, because slack pays dividends.

All good ideas are terrible

Until people realize they are obvious.

If you're not willing to live through the terrible stage, you'll never get to the obvious part.

Now it’s ruined

Photography is a cheat, the death of painting

Photoshop is a hack, the death of photography

Instagram filters are crap, the death of Photoshop

Typing is mechanical, the deathknell for organic handwriting

Word processors are a cheat, the end of linear writing via the typewriter

eBooks are for losers, stealing the magic and majesty of the printed book

Blogging is impermanent, the end of thoughtful word processing

Tweeting is stupid, the end of intelligent blogging

Video is too easy, a cheap shortcut that destroys the essence of film

YouTube has no curators, the end of quality video

Wikipedia is an unproven shortcut, true scholarship is threatened

Selling by phone is for losers, closers show up in person…

Technology almost always democratizes art, because it gives us better tools, better access and a quicker route to mediocrity. It's significantly easier to be a mediocre (almost very good) setter of type today than it was to be a pretty good oil painter two hundred years ago.

And so, when technology shows up, it's easy to imagine that along with the old school becoming obsolete, the new school will be populated by nothing but lazy poseurs.

Don't tell that to Jill Greenberg, Sasha Dichter or Jenny Holzer.

… all this ending is leading to more and more beginnings, isn't it? It's not ruined, it's merely different.

Q&A: The 14 revolutionary trends and the Meatball Sundae

As our series continues, Louisiana Mitch wrote in to ask for an update of the fourteen trends I wrote about eight years ago in Meatball Sundae.

Here they are:

•     Direct communication and commerce between producers and consumers
•     Amplification of the voice of the consumer and independent authorities
•     The need for an authentic story as the number of sources increases
•     Extremely short attention spans due to clutter
•     The Long Tail
•     Outsourcing
•     Google and the dicing of everything
•     Infinite channels of communication
•     Direct communication and commerce between consumers and consumers
•     The shifts in scarcity and abundance
•     The triumph of big ideas
•     The shift from “how many” to “who”
•     Democratization of the wealthy
•     New gatekeepers, no gatekeepers

Every one of these trends has either appeared up or been amplified dramatically in the last ten years. Two questions come to mind:

1. How many of these ideas have you and your organization made big bets on since 2005? (Think about all the disruptive organizations that have been founded or grown significantly because of one or more of these drivers…)

2. Do you think these trends have played out? If it's too late, then by all means go looking for someting new to take their place. In my experience, though, every single one of these is just getting started.

People often ask for a map, but maps are no good if you haven't decided to go somewhere new.

“Do you have three minutes?” The conservation of mental bandwidth

It's not the three minutes it will take to do this favor for you. Everyone has three minutes.

And it's not even the noise and the wear and tear of the mental clutch as we shift from one task to another.

For me, and for many people, it's the leakage of mental bandwidth.

Fear is the enemy of creativity and innovation and of starting things. The resistance hates those things—they are risky, they might not work, so the resistance pushes us not to do them.

On the other hand, it loves the notion of to-do lists and favors and multi-tasking and yes, continual partial attention, because those are perfect hiding places, perfect places to avoid the scary work but still be able to point to a day's work, well done.

But if you have nothing else due, nothing else to do, no other measurable output but that thing you've promised yourself, if all your mental bandwidth is focused on this one and this only, then yep, you can bet that you will get more brave.

Before internet connectivity poured from the sky, I was able to get on a train, plug in my Mac and have nothing to do for four hours but write. And so I wrote. I once bought a round trip ticket to nowhere just to eliminate every possible alternative… pure, unadulterated mental bandwidth.

Plenty of places to run, plenty of places to hide. None of them are as important as shipping your best work today.

Mirrors, cameras and cultural evolution

It's safe to say that everyone reading this has seen an accurate reflection in a mirror. Everyone you know has seen their face in a mirror as well.

A thousand years ago (a nanosecond in evolutionary time) virtually no one had.

Mirrors are a big deal. Elephants and primates have been shown to be able to recognize themselves in a mirror, and the idea of self-image is one of the cornerstones of our culture. Hard to imagine walking through the world without knowing what you look like.

Fascinating aside: When we see a famous person in the mirror, our perception changes.

I hope we can agree that in 2013, anyone who gets uncomfortable around mirrors, who says mirrors aren't their thing, who tries to avoid a job where they might see a mirror–that person is a bit outside the mainstream.

Cameras are mirrors, but unlike the momentary glimpse of the traditional mirror, they are permanent, and now the web amplifies them. Do you see how many people pose for snapshots? The unnatural posture, the fake smile… there's anxiety here, and it's because unlike seeing ourselves in the mirror, we're being captured, forever. Multiply this fear by the million people who might see this photo on Instagram…

No one gets tense in front of mirrors any longer. Experienced professionals don't get tense in front of cameras, either.

It probably used to be okay to say, "mirrors freak me out," or to assert that they contained demons. No longer. It certainly wasn't uncommon for cultures to resist cameras at first, and to take the phrase, "take a picture," quite literally. This resistance is also dying out and almost gone.

And yet… And yet we still freeze up when someone takes a picture, we hold our breath before we go on stage, we give away our deepest insecurities when someone puts us on video…

Mirrors and cameras each took a generation or more to catch on as widespread foundations of our culture. It's not surprising, then, that so many people fear social media. It's about us, and when we're on the hook, in front of people we can't know or trust, we hold back.

For a while.

And then we don't.

The self-defeating quest for simple and easy

Bullet points, step by step processes that are guaranteed to work overnight, proven shortcuts…

If it was easy, everyone would do it.

Worth noting that surgeons don't sign up for medical school because they're told that there is a simple, easy way to do open heart surgery.

It's not that we're unable to handle complicated problems, it's that we're afraid to try. The Dummies mindset, the get-rich-quick long sales letters, the mechanistic, industrial processes aren't on offer because they're the best we can handle. No, they sell because they promise to reduce our fear.

It will take you less time and less effort to do it the difficult way than it will to buy and try and discard all the shortcuts.