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Role models as a tool for decision making

Innovation is essential, but it’s rarely true that we do something that’s truly never been done before.

And that means that our work is toward something. We’re making decisions, taking risks and expending effort to get from here closer to there, where there is a place that’s been visited before.

Are you spending time in the gym trying to be more like Jackie Joyner-Kersee or Dwayne Johnson? Do your policies push our country to be more like China or Denmark? Will this policy create a place that looks like Bakersfield or Portland? Are you investing in the style of Warren Buffet or Mary Meeker?

The role model’s image brings with it all of the nuance that’s missing from a dry discussion of tactics. It forces us to get real and to look further into the future.

Are you really trying to be a Kardashian?

Time travel is exhausting

If you’re imagining your future and then looking back at today through a rear-view mirror, it can wear you out.

Writing a book (all caps, WRITING A BOOK) or preparing for a TED talk (already in all caps) can paralyze an ordinarily productive person.

At the same time, tweeting is easy for a lot of people.

That’s because Twitter makes the false promise that it’s all about now. Whatever. Write what you’re doing, or feeling, or angry about. It’ll be obsolete in ten minutes. No future, no rear view mirror.

On the other hand, a book feels permanent. It’s not for now, it’s for later. It’s your testament, something for strangers to read.

And so, when you sit to write your book (or your blog, for that matter), you imagine who’s going to read it, one day in the future. And then you reflect from that distant, amorphous place back to now.

Time travel.

Without a doubt, we need to do this now and then. We need the discipline to think hard about the implications of our actions. We need to plan, to envision, to make trade-offs. It keeps us on track, doing work we’re proud of.

But when you find that it’s paralyzing you, it might be better to get back to now. Sit around the campfire and simply tell your story. Your story as of now, for the people who are with you, now.

Embracing your incompetence

You can’t be great at everything. None of us are.

The question is: What will you do about it? What will you do about the areas where you don’t have the commitment, time or skill to be exceptional?

One approach is to never talk about it. It’s off limits. Do the work poorly, but pretend you don’t.

Another approach is to talk about it with zeal. Work to find resources you can use to avoid the things you do poorly. Find a cohort that will challenge you to get better. Find new and better ways to improve…

It’s hard to imagine that avoidance of the issue is going to make things better.

Selling insurance to your sister

There are people in your inner circle who trust you. Family members, close work colleagues, college alumni, dear friends–they will give you the benefit of the doubt.

Think twice before turning this circle into prospects by selling them products and services.

First, it doesn’t scale. You don’t have enough relatives to cash in on.

But far more important, these relationships are precious. These are the people who will help you level up, who see you, who care about your future. They are the ones who will tell you the truth and will challenge you to become a better version of yourself. Don’t burn this down on the lazy road to your next paycheck.

If your product or service isn’t good enough to sell to strangers now, it’s not going to be good enough after you sell it to your inner circle.

[On the other hand–if it’s not good enough to sell to your family, please don’t sell it to us.]

Do things get better?


Improvability is a choice.

You can build a society, an organization or a family with improvement in mind. Either things are static or we’re putting effort into making them better. Here are some of the elements:

Assertions are welcome

Information flows in all directions

Falsifiable assertions are tested, and the successful ones are embraced

There’s forward economic motion

Authority is used to get things done, not to simply end discussion

Proven assertions from the past are accepted until more effective new assertions replace them

The new is shipped on a regular basis

Individuals are encouraged to engage with strange ideas and the strangers who create them

Alternative methods are not seen as disloyal

There are common goals

No graft, no bribery, no external hidden agendas

People show their work and don’t fear insight on their methods

Mistakes are embraced when they lead to forward progress or simply encourage assertion making

It’s not okay to blame the ref for results you don’t like

Most of all, there’s a consistent process in place. A process that doesn’t change even as the work does. That process doesn’t get pushed aside every time a leader feels threatened.

There are one or two of these elements that need expanding:

Assertions are educated guesses about what might work better. They are coherent theories of how a problem can be solved or explanations of how a system works. It’s impossible to be sure of your assertion, but that doesn’t mean you should never make one.

A falsifiable assertion is one that can be proven to be wrong. If it’s not falsifiable, it’s not a useful assertion. Saying that a giant green leprechaun determines the winning lottery numbers isn’t helpful, since we can’t prove that it’s not true.

And forward economic motion: It’s easier to turn a boat that’s already moving. Forward motion means more incoming, more decisions, more deal flow. All of which lead to more ways to learn and more ways to improve.

College confusion

While a high-status college admission confers a measure of status, it doesn’t automatically grant a great education.

Sometimes, a student gets both, but not always. Because learning is taken as much as given.

Along the way, many of us have conflated the status with the learning.

We’re also confused about the correlation between big college sports and the expected outputs of a university.

One symptom: We often say “good college” when we mean “famous college.”

And so, the college one goes to doesn’t tell us very much at all about what someone learned, or even about who they are. It merely demonstrates that when they were 18 years old, a combination of luck and signaling led to them being chosen (or not).

It’s not personal. And it’s not predictive. Unless we allow it to be.


[PS Just finished Lost and Wanted. A haunting novel, with physics. Recommended. The Analog series from Eliot Peper is simply terrific science fiction from the (very) near future–I loved all three. And Dare to Matter, from Jordan Kassalow, the founder of VisionSpring, is next up.]

Might makes right

The ‘might’ in “this might work.”

The ‘might’ of making a generous assertion, one that you can’t be sure of.

Might, might, might.

It adds up.

Consider A/J testing

The problem with A/B testing is that people don’t like to fail.

So they test option A against option B, where both options are quite similar.

Blue boxes vs. green boxes. $199 vs. $205.

Why not spend some time on A/J testing instead?

Test radically different alternatives.

Test eliminating the entrance fee. Test increasing the price 400%. Test making the movie thirty minutes long, or five hours…

You won’t be surprised very often, but when you are, bingo.

When your project isn’t making money

It might be that you’re losing money on every sale

(Which means that each and every item you sell, every service you perform, costs you money. Bigger won’t make you better…)

  • Because you’re not charging enough.

(Low price is the last refuge of leadership that doesn’t have the guts to make a great product and tell a true story to the right people)

  • Because you’re selling to the wrong people…Choose your customers, choose your future.

(Some customers want to pay more than others, and some customers want to get more—of something—than others)

  • Because it costs you too much to make what you sell.

(Your factory processes may be unsophisticated)

Are you aware of work in process, cash flow and cycle times? Are you doing custom work in a batch business, or vice versa?

  • Your supply chain may be undeveloped.

What are you outsourcing? Is the time and money you spend on every step rewarded by the customer you serve?

  • Your people might not be motivated or trained to be efficient.

(Because people do what they want, and they respond to training and respect and opportunity)

  • Your debt service might be too high

(And that’s a hard one to fix)

  • Your competition might do the work in a totally different way, one that you can’t compete with unless you change significantly.

(Systems thinking matters)

It might be that your costs of acquiring a new customer are more than that customer is worth

(Because your marketing message is incorrect)

Because there’s a mismatch between your story and the worldview of those you seek to serve.

Because the people you seek to serve don’t think they need you.

Because it costs too much to tell these people you exist.

Because the people you seek to serve don’t trust you.

Because you’re lying when you make promises.

Because you’re overspending or underspending on marketing.

(often, it’s the underspenders that are in real trouble)

Because you’re focusing on the wrong channels to tell your story.

(just because social media is fun to talk about doesn’t mean it works)

Because you don’t have a connection ratchet, a business that leads to a network effect, where success begets more success because the more people use you, the more they want their friends and colleagues to use you as well.

Because your product isn’t sufficiently developed.

Because the people you seek to serve don’t talk about you, thus, you’re not remarkable.

Or the people you seek to serve don’t like to talk about anyone, and your efforts to be remarkable are wasted.

Because your product doesn’t earn traction with your customers, they wouldn’t miss you if you were gone–the substitutes are easy.

Because even though you’re trying hard, you’re being selfish, focusing on your needs instead of having empathy for those you seek to serve.

It might be that your scale is wrong

You may have created an organization that’s profitable at a much bigger (or smaller size) but the mismatch between your overhead (all that rent, all those people, all of those services you pay for) and your total sales is way off.

It’s smarter than ever to be very small–but occasionally, there are significant rewards for being the efficient giant.

It’s rare that being in the middle is the Goldilocks happy medium you were hoping for.

That’s it, that might be all of it.

Either your marginal costs are too high compared to your price, or the fixed price of marketing is too high, or your overhead is too high (meaning your sales are too low for the size of your organization).

Within those three areas, there are many sub-riffs:

It might be that you’re too early to the market.

There are early adopters, certainly, but maybe not enough, or not willing to pay your price…

Being too early also means that your costs are higher and your forward motion is slower.

And it might be that you’re too late.

Which means that the people who were interested, interesting and willing to pay extra already have their needs met, and all you’re left with is bottom-fishing, bargain-hunting late adopters.

It might be that you’re slow moving when those you seek to serve want speedWhat you make isn’t usually as important as how it makes your customers feel.

You might not be focused enough on a specific segment of the marketplace, a place where you can cross the chasm and reach the customers who are waiting for a tested and proven option.

It’s possible you say ‘yes’ when you should frequently be saying ‘no’.

You may have a staffing problem, with senior people doing their job instead of working on the mission of solving interesting problems and scaling up their tactics.

It’s likely that you’re being reactive, doing what the market tells you instead of bending the market in the direction you want it to go

(But, it’s almost as likely that you’re spending too much time and energy bending the market in a way it’s not eager to bend, and if you spent more time fitting into the slot that’s being offered, you could generate the traction you’re looking for.)

A lot of this is called “marketing” but too often, when faced with problems like these, we end up spending time shouting, hyping and cutting promotional corners instead of doing the hard work of understanding what we make, how we make it and who we make it for.

I know this is a long list. But the good news is that once you find what’s broken, you can fix it.

The minimizing coin

If your habit is to clear your throat, apologize a few times, minimize the quality of the work you’re about to share and in general, apologize for the assertions you’re about to make…

you probably realize that this is not an effective way to give a talk, lead a class or have a strategic discussion.

Consider carrying a coin in your pocket, one that’s large, or in a foreign currency.

Every time you feel like you need to minimize your contribution, simply stop and turn the coin over. You can count that as your obligation fulfilled.

And then you can get back to work.

[This isn’t simply an analogy. It actually works.]


PS There’s a new episode of my podcast Akimbo out this week, and it’s one of my favorites. You can listen to each of them, any time, along with browsing the occasionally interesting show notes. Or you can subscribe…