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Principles and being let off the hook

Principles that we suspend during difficult times aren’t really principles. Principles really count when they’re difficult to maintain.

That’s not the same thing, though, as refusing to consider the edge cases.

“Free speech,” is a fine principle, one to live by. But shouting “fire” in a crowded movie theater isn’t allowed, for good reason.

The edge cases are always subject to endless debate. There are no easy bright lines. It’s tempting, then, to never consider the edge cases. A rule’s a rule.

But principles without judgment aren’t the easy path they seem to be. Because without our judgment on the edge cases, we’ve given up responsibility. It’s no longer our decision if we’re not making a decision.

The hard work involves willingly being on the hook for making a tough call.

Next to the competition

On Fisherman’s Wharf, there’s one restaurant after another. Is that a smart place to open a business, right next to all the others?

At the bookstore, there are tens of thousands of books, each competing to find a reader.

The thing is, books are impossible to sell when there aren’t a lot of books around. They don’t sell many books at Macy’s.

The biggest competitor most marketers face is “none.” Inaction always has the biggest market share of all.

The surprising solution is to be surrounded by competition. Because that changes the question from, “if?” to “which?”

“Everyone draws the line somewhere”

Of course they do.

The interesting insight is to realize that our line seems to be in exactly the right place, every time.

Getting used to the fact that our lines are unique is the first step in figuring out how to engage with people who see things differently.

Open parentheses

Technology shows up and changes the culture. The culture then enables new industries and movements, which further change the culture. And then technology shows up and puts an end to the system we were all used to.

The parentheses open, and then, perhaps, they close.

The pop-rock parentheses opened with the transistor radio (kids could listen to music without their parents) and closed with streaming (no scarcity meant long tail meant no mass market).

The publishing parentheses opened with Gutenberg and ended with the death of the bookstore. Digital books mean no scarce shelf space, no scarce paper, no power to the publisher, no mass market.

A door opens, and then, one day, it closes.

It’s easy to mourn the end of these eras, but in my lifetime, so many parentheses have opened…

Computers connect us–to resources, to truth and to each other (which can mean folk-truth instead of actual truth)

Medicine is truly a science, not a series of half-understood superstitions

Musicians and writers can find an audience without a gatekeeper

We’ve changed the narrative about fairness (even though we’ve just begun to make progress)

It has never been easier to spread an idea or start an enterprise

Access to information, just about all of it, is cheap and fast

If you care enough to learn something, you can

It’s possible to day trade tragedy and doom, and if it was the best way to make things better, I’d be in favor of it. But with all the doors that have opened, what a chance to make things better. To make something, and to make things better.

HT Kevin Kelly, Chris Anderson, Bernadette JiwaJeff Jarvis, Rohan Rajiv, Paul McGowan, Dan Pink, Roz Zander, David Deutsch and so many others. More on systems thinking in this week’s podcast.

Go start a project.

The $50,000 an hour gate agent

Conventional CEO wisdom is that top management is worth a fortune because of the high-leverage decisions they make.

But consider the work of Wade, an unheralded Air Canada gate agent. Yesterday, I watched him earn his employer at least $50,000 while getting paid perhaps .1% of that.

The microphone was out of order, but instead of screaming at the passengers, he walked over and spoke directly to the people who needed to hear him.

On his own, he started inquiring about the connection status of a family of four. He could have cleared the standby list, closed the flight and told the four that they’d have to find another way home. Or, he could have saved them their four seats, which would have flown empty if they hadn’t been filled. Instead of either path, he picked up the phone, organized other staff to find and expedite the family and get them on board.

And then, in an unrelated bit of valor, he tracked down a lost wallet and sent his #2 to fetch it from where it had been left–getting it to the plane before it left.

Most of all, in an era when loyalty is scarce, he probably increased the lifetime value of a dozen wavering customers by at least a few thousand dollars each.

Krulak’s Law states that the future of an organization is in the hands of the privates in the field, not the generals back home.

Unfortunately, management and a lack of trust get in the way of the work environment you’ll need to build to earn the human, dedicated work of the next Wade. Hopefully, the airline will put him in charge of their horrible website next. But I’m not optimistic.

Where is your Wade? What are you doing to make it more likely that he or she will bring magic to work tomorrow?

“I wish I had more data”


More data is usually available. It takes time or money, but you can get more data.

But you’re probably not using all the data you’ve already got.

I’m guessing what you meant was, “I wish I had more certainty.”

And that, unfortunately, isn’t available.

If it’s worth the work you put into it and the change you seek to make, it’s worth dancing with the uncertainty. Reassurance isn’t going to come from more data–that’s a stall.

Forward motion is the best way to make things better.

‘Scrappy’ is not the same as ‘crappy’

The only choice is to launch before you’re ready.

Before it’s perfect.

Before it’s 100% proven to be no risk to you.

At that moment, your resistance says, “don’t ship it, it’s crappy stuff. We don’t ship crap.”

And it’s true that you shouldn’t ship work that’s hurried, sloppy or ungenerous.

But what’s actually on offer is something scrappy.

Scrappy means that while it’s unpolished, it’s better than good enough.

Scrappy doesn’t care about cosmetics as much as it cares about impact.

Scrappy is flexible and resilient and ready to learn.

Ship scrappy.


[HT to Joshua].

The irony of close competition

The easiest way to get someone’s attention is to compare them to someone else.

When people compete on the same metrics (how many followers, how much income, how many points scored) the focus gets very tight. With a simple metric, there’s no confusion at all about how to earn more status.

The irony is that the simpler the metric, the less useful the effort is.

Big ideas, generous work, important breakthroughs–to pursue these goals is to abandon the metric of the moment in favor of a more useful sort of contribution.

If we want smart kids, the GPA is a lousy way to get them.

Portion control

That’s the two-part secret of smart eating–you don’t have to eat everything on your plate, and if you’ve got trouble with that, put less on the plate to begin with.

But the same rules apply in our daily lives. If a meeting is scheduled for an hour, you’re allowed to leave after ten minutes if you’re done.

The hard part isn’t ‘portion’, it’s ‘control’. Self-control is underrated.

The digital economy has created an endless buffet, and it’s easy to overeat. When confronted with infinity, is it okay to blink?

Portions are up to us.

Connection day

Independence sometimes seems easier than the long-term, disciplined, generous work of connection.

But it’s connection that enables us to add value.

The math is simple: when people with different assets, needs and views come together, they’re able to produce more than they ever could on their own. Trading goods, skills and knowledge without friction creates a leap in productivity.

It might be easier to burn a bridge than it is to build one, but in the long run, bridges are what we need.