As the leader of the forces opposing evil in the universe .. you’re fired!

Epic tales are a lot of fun to read – the struggle of good and evil, the climactic moment of truth when the future of humanity or the world hangs in the balance.  They also can provide good insight on managing complex projects .. or rather, how not to.  There are some great lessons to be learned from the bungling incompetence of fictional heroes (and yes, this point of view can make you a real buzzkill, so you might want to keep these thoughts to yourself!).

Risk Mitigation and Contingency Planning

The worst sins of omission are basic risk analysis, mitigation, and contingency planning.  Very brittle plans are made, with no effort to figure out a Plan B if something goes wrong.  That makes for great drama, but it’s lousy planning.

Let’s start with Lord of the Rings.  It’s a great story that I have loved since I discovered The Hobbit as a ten year old – it has edge of your seat excitement with a richly detailed universe as the backdrop.  But come on .. what kind of a grab-ass plan was that for saving the world from evil?  We’ve got a group of clueless hobbits wandering to Bree with the Nazgûl charging around and almost catching them. The hobbits are supposed to hook up with Aragorn, but they don’t even know what he looks like – would it have killed Gandalf to give them a description?  How about an escort?  The great civilizations of Middle Earth are facing Armageddon, and they can’t scare up a couple of people to help out?

On Star Trek they are always beaming the ship’s top officers onto a potentially hostile and unknown planet, leaving the Enterprise with mostly junior people to run it.  What’s up with that?  They probably shouldn’t be sending most of the senior officers into harms way in the first place.  And, a Constitution class starship is a massive investment and a jewel in the crown of the Federation .. how come they don’t have enough seasoned officers on board to be fully covered even if four or five of the most senior ones insist on wandering into danger all the time?

In the wonderful fantasy series “The Dark is Rising”, they almost lose the ancient artifacts that determine the victory of good or evil because .. somebody left a note with a family and they happened to forget to deliver it.  Really?  Come on!  If that’s the best you can do, time for a new project manager who has a clue.  To drive a complex and crucial initiative, think about the aspects of your plan that are fragile and could easily go wrong, and build in defense in depth.

The Dark is Rising heroes not only made one dumb and potentially fatal arrangement, they keep doing it.  Don’t be like them.  If you see a particular breakdown, think about the underlying causes and address them.  Don’t settle for the obvious explanation – dig deeper.  Say you are running an online service and it went down .. why did it happen?  Well, there was a bug in the code.

  • Sure, but why did the bug slip through?  Do you need better tests?  More tests?  More realistic load testing?
  • Why did it happen in the first place?  Was there some communication breakdown?  Is the architecture of the system too baroque?  Are there missing levels of abstraction between system components?
  • Why was it hard to find and fix?  Do you need better diagnostics?  Better logging?  Better monitoring?
  • Why did it affect so many people?  Could you have a more loosely connected system?  Could components be more resilient when others fail, and degrade the user experience more gracefully?
  • Why were you down so long?  Does it take too long to deploy a fix?  Too much time to restart components that depend on it?

In running a project, you often have to make bets and take gambles – that’s part of the game.  However, you should think about the key bets you are making, and what will happen if your bet is wrong.  How quickly can you tell that you made a mistake (and be fairly sure about it)?  What will you do to reverse course or mitigate the failure?  Are you keeping anything in reserve so that you have some resources you can apply to help rescue the situation?  If you are making an unrecoverable bet, are you clear about that and about the due diligence you need to do up front?

Defining Roles

One of the common sources of confusion and inefficiency in a team is not knowing what role everyone is supposed to play.  Often, you can muddle along until something really important comes up, and then under stress the team works very poorly to resolve the issue.

Think about Boromir and Aragorn – after Gandalf fell into the cavern fighting the Balrog, they hadn’t resolved who was left in charge of the group.  Boromir deeply disagreed with the strategy Aragorn laid out.  Frodo decided he didn’t want to be with any of them any longer.  Since he was the ring bearer, ultimately it was his decision .. but nobody had given much thought to it.   It’s critical to figure out how the most important decisions are going to get made, and it’s a lot easier to do that before you are in the middle of a stressful situation with emotions running high (though hopefully you won’t be getting attacked by the Uruk-hai).

Thinking Out of the Box

It’s easy to get trapped into conventional thinking.  We’re all prone to unconscious assumptions – how things are supposed to be done, constraints we think we have to live with.  For example, Gandalf is close friends with the eagles, who can .. fly.  While carrying riders, and even outmaneuvering the fell beasts that the Nazgûl are riding later in the story.  So why is the Fellowship slogging their way through the mines of Moria and playing tag with terrifying ancient spiders, when they could get to Orodruin in a couple of hours?  Maybe with some Legolas-class archers along to provide suppressing fire in case anybody tries to interfere?  The whole thing could have been wrapped up and the hobbits tucked cozily back in their beds after a nice end of the day snack, before Sauron had a clue.  This idea is hilariously developed on “How it Should Have Ended”.

In life, it’s impossible to identify and question all your unconscious assumptions .. but you can tease out the most important ones.  Ask yourself what you are assuming, and whether you have the evidence to back it up.  Ask “what do I have to believe?” in order to justify a proposed course of action, and see if you can get some kind of backup that those things are really true.  Or a way to notice that they aren’t, so if you are on a delusional path, you’ll figure it out as quickly as possible.

Learn From Everything

I have found that there are great lessons to be learned about accomplishing your goals from every life experience.  Learn on the job, by all means, but I try to make everything grist for the mill – books, stories, movies, tales from history .. it all provides insight and inspiration to help you pick the goals that matter to you and to find ways to achieve them.  And before you decide that “actually, hope is the plan”, remember that in real life, you aren’t the main character.  There is no author who will turn your heedless folly into an exciting story of success against all odds.

Eyes of a Stranger

I’m always looking for best practices to adapt and adopt, and I got an idea that I really like from a mentor.  It is a way to combat the complacency that sets in as we settle into any role – that tendency to become accustomed to the way things are, even when they are pretty screwed up.  “Well, of course you stand on one foot and tug on your left ear with your right hand .. that’s just how things are done here.”  With fresh eyes, we might ask “but, umm, isn’t that kind of stupid?”  And, “about the fire burning over there .. maybe throwing some water on it would be good?”

So periodically – maybe once a quarter, or once a year, the idea is to do an exercise I like to call “eyes of a stranger”.  Pretend that you just got your job and are figuring things out – you are in your “first 30 days” and are coming up to speed on the important things you need to focus on.  What is a top priority issue or opportunity that you would see and decide that you absolutely have to pursue?  What inefficiency would you discover that would just bug you until you got it fixed?  What joy-killer is afflicting the team (or you) that needs to get taken care of?

There’s a scene from a book that got stuck in my mind; it’s in Kon Tiki, the really fun story about an anthropologist who gathers a set of kindred spirits to prove that it is possible to sail a raft from the Peruvian coast to the Polynesian islands, using only the technology available in ancient Peru.  At the end of the book, they have crashed on a reef and the raft is smashed, they are pinned down and waves are pounding over them, and one of the people clinging to the remains of the boat says calmly “This won’t do.”  I try to apply that same calm but determined spirit to situations at work that feel desperate.  As you look at your job and the environment around you, what “won’t do” that you’ve gotten used to and have been letting slide?

I’ve found that you probably want to come out of the exercise with a very short list of things you are going to pursue more aggressively than you have been – one is good, three is probably an absolute max.  If you come up with a longer list, revisit it after you do something about the top ones.  I tend to find that you get wildly more bang for the buck by focusing on a couple of things (or one!) rather than dutifully writing down ten “priorities” and feeling overwhelmed so you just go back to ignoring them.

For each of the issues that you’ve picked, you need to figure out what concrete steps you can actually go take to deal with them.  I like to sit down with a piece of paper and do a mind map.  If the issues are worth addressing and you haven’t been doing it, it’s a good bet that you are a bit stuck in figuring out what needs to be done.  Maybe you just need to spend 30 minutes listing next steps or coming up with a plan.  Or, perhaps it will work better to pick somebody you have a good rapport with, and brainstorm about it together.  If it’s a really big issue, you might find it helpful to apply (some of) the framework that I outlined in the series on “Cracking the Nut”.

I’ve done this exercise over a dozen times, and each one has helped me get hard core about tackling something that needed doing and that wasn’t moving forward.  See if it works for you, too!

What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?

When I’m managing or mentoring somebody, this is one of my favorite questions.  It’s a good way to crawl into their heads a bit, understand their motivations, and figure out how I can help them.  It’s also not a bad question to ask yourself!


There are different ways to approach the answer – you might base it on:

  • A particular person’s abilities: code like Guy Steele, move an audience like Meryl Streep, or paint like Raphael.
  • A particular job: be the VP of your division, the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, or the founder of a growing startup.
  • An achievement:  win an Olympic gold medal in swimming, design a piece of software that millions of people adopt, or take a company public.
  • A state of being: be crazy passionate about your job, feel that you are living in perfect alignment with your principles, or devote your life to serving the community.

How somebody chooses to answer will tell you a lot about their values, ambitions, and self-image.  Be careful about guiding them too much .. we’re talking about their dreams, not yours.

Cheerleader or Critic?

In doing this exercise with many people, it’s usually at least imaginable that they might achieve their ambitions with hard work and some (or a lot) of luck.  However, now and then somebody will come up with a goal where you have to struggle a bit to keep a straight face.  Often it’s about personality and passion – if you are impatient and can’t stay focused on your own, writing novels might not be your best bet.  So what do you do when someone who hates math wants a Nobel Prize in physics?

I try to be a “pragmatic cheerleader”.  I don’t want to be a dream buzzkill – most people are surrounded by plenty of those already.  But I also don’t want to be mindlessly encouraging.  The next question often helps to get things more grounded in reality.

What Does it Take to Achieve That Goal?

Dreaming big is great, but you have to break down the goal and figure out what it takes to achieve it.  One approach I like: if the person wants to be an X, I get them to write down a description of what the absolutely perfect X would be like.  For example, when I was running a relatively large team, I came up with what I thought a perfect team leader should do .. I wrote about that here.

Often, the person doesn’t have a great answer.  They are attracted to the idea of being a CEO, but they don’t actually know much about what the day to day life of a CEO looks like.  After some discussion, we can usually rough out an outline of the skills and qualities needed, but we often agree that a key next step is to validate that list with people who actually have that role or are more familiar with it than we are.  That’s a great practical step forward on the journey.

How Do You Stack Up Today?  How Do You WANT to Stack Up?

The next thing I do is have them assess themselves against those ideal qualities or skills.  At this point, people sometimes realize that their supposed goal doesn’t actually make a lot of sense for them.  I was talking to one person who thought they wanted to be the CFO of a public company.  We talked about the skills you’d need to be a fantastic CFO, and then she thought about when in her work life she had been really happy and why.  And she realized that the things that really did make her passionate and inspired were not the key activities of that job at all.  So I think that was a helpful moment of self-revelation.

This exercise also tests self-awareness.  Sometimes, they are confident that they have some needed quality .. and you think they are wrong.  It’s tricky to handle this.  I tend to tread pretty lightly – the goal here is self-revelation, not a lecture on their weaknesses, which tends to bring the discussion to a halt in a hurry.

But if people have at least a basic level of clue about their true nature and abilities, this exercise can have quite a profound impact.  I’ve watched people realize that they were carrying around outmoded ideals foisted on them by authority figures from their youth, and realize that they have an inspiring path open to them in a quite different direction.  That’s what you hope for – an opportunity to enable somebody to achieve a profound moment of self-discovery.

How Does One Actually Get That Job?

Next, I like to consider how people actually get the job or the opportunity to achieve the goal in question.  If it is a well-defined role, then the answer is usually straight-forward, but many people don’t think about it very practically.  I’ve repeatedly asked, “how do you become a VP” (or whatever).  People go on about a demonstrated track record, a well rounded set of skills, and all sorts of worthy things … but none of those are the real answer.

The actual answer is, “somebody who hires VPs chooses you”!  Now why would they do that?  All these ideas about skills and roundedness are fine, but often the true reason is that the hiring manager has confidence in you to do a great job and trusts you.  They’ll almost always pick somebody with strong skills, whom they deeply trust, over an unknown with a potentially stronger resume but who might be a whacko.  And they trust you because they know you over a long period of time, and have watched how you handle many different situations.  So one of the things that might be necessary to achieve your goal is to deeply commit to a particular team or company for an extended period of time, rather than bouncing around all the time.

Alternatively, the goal might be something that has to be created rather than granted – becoming the CEO of a new startup is self-elected (!).  But they need to have enough money to survive without an income and perhaps to fund the company for a while.  They may need a network of people they can hire.  And so forth.  Pretty much any ambitious goal will require something in order to open up the opportunity.

What Are Your Next Steps?

Now they have identified the goal, what it takes to get that opportunity, what they need to be successful, and where they stand now.  For each skill or ability where they aren’t already strong and experienced, I’ll brainstorm with them about a specific action that will develop it.  For example,  they can often build up skills that aren’t a direct part of their job by volunteering for extra projects – what I like to call “hobbies”.  I’ve learned a ton from hobbies – helping to organize and run a large developer conference, participating in working groups considering radical new directions to take the team, teaching classes, etc.  None of those had much to do with my core job, but I practiced new skills, learned about new areas, met really cool people .. and had a lot of fun.

The goal is to finish the discussion by identifying very concrete steps that will build the skills they need to achieve their dreams.  And if you have an ongoing relationship, hold them to it.  If you can really help somebody achieve their dreams, that is one of the best feelings in the world!

We’re Living in Florence, in 1450 A.D.

If you work in technology, you have the amazing luck to be in the midst of one of the great transformations of human society.  There have been numerous times in history when technology has transformed the way we live, our understanding of the world, and the life we are able to experience.  I’ve had one of them on my mind a lot lately – the Renaissance.  I think there are very interesting parallels to be drawn.  It feels like we’re at the height of the first round .. which would put us in Florence, around 1450.

What Caused The Renaissance?

Many forces came together to enable that astonishing transformation of knowledge, art, architecture, and commerce, whose profound impact shaped the world and still fascinates us.

There were some key technology breakthroughs.  Gutenberg is famous for inventing the printing press in 1440, which greatly expanded our ability to distribute ideas.  But just as important, and less frequently remarked upon, was the spread of paper.  We take it for granted today, but it was a magical boost to our ability to capture and disseminate ideas.  Paper is far less costly to produce and can be manufactured in much greater quantity than alternatives like vellum, made from animal skins.  Invented in China in 100 AD, paper remained a closely held secret for several hundred years, but had become widely used by the time of the Renaissance.

The ability to travel and to trade was revolutionized by ocean-going ships (like the Portuguese caravel), which were capable of navigating the globe.  At the same time, the mariner’s astrolabe made it possible to measure latitude anywhere in the world.  With weapons like the arquebus, small groups were able to wreak havoc among less technologically advanced populations.

New technology called for new technique, as well.  The development of merchant capitalism, along with sophisticated means of tracking commercial activities like double-entry bookkeeping, allowed a modern system of banking to emerge.  It was banking that made Florence so wealthy, and that wealth enabled major investments in science and the arts.

In addition to a major infusion of money, the arts were transformed by new techniques as well.  Paintings became far more realistic using linear perspective.  Architecture took advantage of construction techniques both novel and rediscovered.  Grand new structures were created that finally matched and exceeded marvels (like the dome of the Pantheon in Rome) that had been built 1400 years earlier.

This confluence of breakthroughs in technology and technique allowed Europe to leap forward and become the dominant world power in a remarkably short period of time.  Businesses grew to previously unheard of scale and their activities reached across the globe.  Ideas moved much more quickly, too, because they were carried along by the people who were associated with this explosion of trading activity.  Control of knowledge moved from guilds to a mobile class of experts.  Liquidity, supported by precious metals imported from the New World, began to move the basis of wealth from land to capital.  Our world view also began to shift radically – from deism, centered on God, to humanism.  Our conception of the universe was rocked by the discovery that we were one of many planets orbiting around the sun.

The Modern Renaissance

Fast forward to today, and consider what is happening.  In technology, we are seeing two massive changes: devices and the cloud.  The cloud has transformed the cost and reach of computing.  By most estimates, Google runs well over a million servers in their data centers and handles something like three billion searches per day.  This is technology operating at a global scale that was absolutely inconceivable a few years ago.  At the same time, the programmable cloud has made it extremely cheap to build and deploy software.  For a few hundred dollars a month, a programmer with a laptop can take a program they have written and within minutes make it available to more than two billion people.

Smartphones and similar devices are also astonishing in their capability and their reach.  There are now around 1 billion smartphone users in the world with the Internet in their pocket and accessible at all times.  That number is growing rapidly – estimates are that there will be a billion net new smartphone users in the next few years.  The Apple App Store just crossed 25 billion downloads.  The pace of growth and the scale of what has already happened are just staggering.

As always, new technology encourages innovation in techniqueOpen source software has been around for decades, of course, but it has gotten a major boost from its intimate relationship to cloud computing.  A wide body of high quality components are available for free to anyone who wishes to build cloud applications, representing a dramatic reduction in the time and effort required to go from idea to product.  We’re benefiting from that tremendously in our startup.

Another key change is the move from on-premise software to software as a service.  It means that the latest version of every application is available to every customer, without their needing to deploy or manage it.  Services pair nicely with, and encourage, the shift from physical to virtual – instead of manipulating objects, increasingly we’re manipulating data.  We are doing research and developing new products using simulated environments.  We’re transporting knowledge and entertainment as packets over networks, not by sending boxes of plastic and paper around the world.  Increasingly, the basis of value is rooted in virtual goods and services.  I believe that is as profound an economic change as the shift from land-based wealth to capitalism.

Signposts of the Revolution

We have seen some dramatic evidence of the impact that these changes will have, but I think we’re just at the beginning.

  • Facebook has over 900 million active users, and is on track to hit a billion later this year.  It has grown to that size in .. eight years.  To put that in perspective, China’s population today is 1.3 billion; it took around 250 years to grow the last billion (and it took human beings about 12,000 years to hit their first billion).
  • Speaking of Facebook, they recently purchased Instagram.  This company, which serves 30 million users has .. 13 employees.  Two developers run the back-end service for their users.  A few years ago, it would have taken a big company with major resources to support that many users, and now it can be done with a handful of people and no capital expense at all.
  • Consider that icon of the industrial revolution – the car.  A modern premium automobile has something like 100 million lines of code to run the nearly 100 processors distributed throughout it.  It was simulated extensively on supercomputers, is supported by myriad online services, and the supply chain that delivered it to you only works because of massive amounts of software tracking every minute aspect of its progress in real time.

I could go on, but the point is that virtually every industry is in the process of being transformed by the combination of the cloud and the device.  The way we make discoveries and create new inventions.  The way we communicate.  How and what we buy.  How companies interact with each other and with their customers.  And this is all happening incredibly quickly – the cost and effort for new ideas to be tried, refined, and deployed globally has dropped to the floor.  We’ve seen some dramatic changes already, but that was just a warm-up – we’re in for quite a ride.

The Path Ahead is Uncertain

In 1450, Florence was unquestionably at the forefront of the Renaissance, and the city was dominated by the Medici family.  By 1500, the focus of the action had moved elsewhere in Italy and across Europe, and Florence never regained its dominance.  What happened?  Well, for one thing, Charles VIII of France invaded Italy in 1494 and kicked off the Italian Wars, a series of conflicts that involved various city states and several empires.  That first invasion forced the Medici to flee the city, though they returned and ruled it again later.  In the meantime, other parts of Italy and Europe took over and led the Renaissance forward.  I suspect that the fortunes of the early players in our current Renaissance will also dramatically rise and fall.

And worse than losing leadership, there is a darker side to change.  We like to celebrate the Renaissance and the great leap forward in human capability that it represented.  But it wasn’t positive for everyone; it was particularly brutal for indigenous cultures around the world who were now within reach of the Europeans.  Many of them were despoiled and enslaved.  The current changes will not be as violent, hopefully, but we have seen these forces help governments fall and companies be humbled, and there are industries filled with people whose economic future will be dramatically affected.

We can never know ahead of time how things are going to shake out for particular groups during times of great change.  But when transformative forces come along that are this strong, they cannot be denied – they will transform our lives, culturally and economically.

Leonardo Da Vinci.  Michelangelo.  Brunelleschi.  We are still inspired by what they accomplished.  They were amazing people … but they also had amazing luck.  They lived in a magical time and place in the history of mankind.  So do you.  How are you going to be part of this modern Renaissance?

Five Favorite Books .. Capturing the Passion of Creation and Discovery

One of the most common and effective of the “classic plots” for a novel is the quest.  Many epic tales are based on it – Frodo and the Ring, Indiana Jones and the Ark, Odysseus and his attempt to get home.  But the passion to create and to discover in the real world can be just as compelling, if they are captured well.  I’m always looking for books that pull it off, and here are five that I particularly enjoyed.

Ship of Gold – in 1857, the SS Central America was wrecked off the Carolina shore on its way back from the California gold fields, with hundreds of people and tons of gold aboard.  The exact location of the wreck was a mystery – a puzzle that Tommy Thompson was determined to solve.  He is an entrepreneur and explorer and inventor who spent 10 years searching for the wreck and preparing for the salvaging operation.  Along the way, he invented a whole range of new equipment and techniques for doing deep-water recovery – the ship was 8000 feet below the surface, distantly out of the reach of traditional salvaging methods.

Thompson throws himself into the project, leading a team of oddball characters and managing investors and lawyers .. while fending off competitors who are watching his every move.  He built a six ton remote controlled underwater vehicle called Nemo, with video cameras and robotic arms.  How he ultimately succeeded in recovering a few hundred million dollars worth of gold from the wreck is a triumphant story of achieving an extraordinarily difficult mission against all odds.

A Place of My Own: The Architecture of DaydreamsMichael Pollan is probably best known for his book “Omnivore’s Dilemma” (which is very good!).  But I am a fan of his less celebrated (and quirky) book describing in immense detail how he came to build a writer’s cabin on his property.  You may have been involved in a construction project of your own at some point, but I’m going to guess that you didn’t approach it in quite the way that Pollan did.  He’s .. well, he’s an obsessive sort of person, and fiercely bookish.  And yet he decided that he would build this house himself, starting from absolutely zero knowledge of architecture or construction.

Work is how we situate ourselves in the world, and like the work of many people nowadays, mine put me in a relationship to the world that often seemed abstract, glancing, secondhand. . . . Nor did what I do seem to add much, if anything, to the stock of reality, and though this might be a dated or romantic notion in an age of information, it seemed to me this was something real work should do.

The two and a half year saga of Pollan and a curmudgeonly builder putting together what is essentially an oversized garden shed is a glorious and beautifully written ode to manual labor mixed with over-thinking everything.  To get things rolling, he turns to the writings of … Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, a Roman architect from the first century BC.  And to Chinese writings about the principles of feng shui (he tries running downhill to feel the flow of the land and identify a good site for the building).  And to poets, architects, philosophers .. the list goes on and on.  You get the pleasure of joining Pollan on an absurdly wide ranging set of digressions on the history of architecture, how to design a truss, and the often uneasy relationship between architects and builders.  And at the end, you feel like you have traveled with him on a zealot’s quest to create a perfect organic writing space.

The Soul of the New Machine – as an engineer, I love the way that Tracy Kidder captured the excitement and the exhaustion of creating a new piece of complex technology.  He vividly conveys the marathon sessions of caffeine-fueled intensity, the team driving itself to the edge as it creates and refines a tremendously complex design.  It is one of the truest portrayals I’ve read of what it is like to be swept up in that kind of experience.  And it’s particularly noteworthy because Kidder is not technical at all – he has no real understanding of the work that the team was doing, yet managed to capture the spirit of it very accurately.

This particular machine was built by Data General, in 1981, at the dawning of the age of the mini-computer.  It ended up having little impact on the evolution of computer technology, because DEC’s VAX was and remained dominant.  But that makes the story even more authentic to me, in some ways – you have to believe that what you are doing is incredibly exciting and important.  It’s magical to be swept up in that collective creative act, regardless of the verdict that history ultimately renders on the outcome.

How I Killed Pluto and Why it Had it Coming – those of us in my generation grew up in a nine planet solar system, with lonely Pluto orbiting way out in the frigid fringes of the solar system, looping in its eccentric orbit off kilter from everyone else.  It was jarring to hear that the astronomers downgraded the poor little wanderer to being a mere “planetoid” – My Very Excellent Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas lost its punch line (maybe now she is serving us Naan, to reflect our globally connected community …).  What happened?

This book answers that question, and it also lets you join Mike Brown, a passionate explorer of the cosmos.  He introduces us to his life as an astronomer and his painstaking exploration of the pocket of space around the sun that we call our solar system.  You will learn about the Kuiper Belt and its littering of frozen asteroids, you’ll watch astronomers move from massive cameras exposing film all through the night to computers that can capture images hundreds of times more quickly and search for cosmic wanderers algorithmically.  It’s a great ride.

Double Helix – I almost didn’t include this book because it is so well known, but it’s such an exciting read, and represented such a transformation in our understanding of genetics, that I couldn’t leave it out.  If you haven’t read it yet, it tells the story of how James Watson and Francis Crick figured out the structure of DNA, the genetic blueprint for human beings (and every other organism on earth, aside from some viruses).  It’s literally the magic key to life on Earth.

The book shows the human drama of discovery, complete with a race to figure out the answer before other teams could “crack the code” first.  And the result is such a beautiful answer – the double helix structure is elegant and resilient.

This is what drew me to science and research as a child – banging your head against hard problems that matter, suddenly having the insight, and then being able to understand how the world works and came to be in a new and exciting way.  It’s what science ought to feel like!

Create Every Day

I have always been passionate about making things out of ideas.  One of the great joys is to start from a whim or a flash of inspiration, breathe life into it, make it real, and share it with others.  Drawing, photography, writing, cooking, startups – they all begin as a spark or sometimes a compulsion.  They take form through art and craft and passion, and eventually emerge on some trajectory .. sometimes they soar, sometimes limp, sometimes fall to the earth with a thud.  They don’t always deliver on their early glittering promise.  They can morph in strange and unforeseen ways, yielding the delightfully unexpected or the disappointing or the just plain weird.

I write about that compulsion in a blog about inspiring teams and achieving goals, because the desire to create is one of the oldest and strongest human needs.  We have an accompanying penchant for destruction, unfortunately, but out of the fire and ashes we always begin again and go on to even greater acts of creation.  If you can get a team to commit whole-heartedly to some shared act of creation, the result can be magical.

The idea is the beginning.  It can be flickering and unformed, or it can spring forth almost fully shaped.  It often comes at odd times when my mind is drifting.  I try always to keep a journal nearby and scribble in it often, filling it with fragments and half-glimpsed visions.  Just writing down the beginnings of an idea often starts me along the path.

The pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink and clamoring to become visible.  – Vladimir Nabakov

Then comes that moment when you have to begin the work.  That can be hard; you aren’t inspired, you aren’t in the mood.  Your tools feel awkward and balky – they don’t fit your hand.   You know that what you are making will be clumsy and lifeless.  In your mind you saw glittering potential, yet here is this pale, lifeless thing that petulantly takes shape in front of you.  You question why you bother, who needs the hassle, it’s all pointless.  Maybe I should go pay some bills – at least then I’ll have done something useful.

But sometimes, it happens.  From somewhere outside your conscious control, the work takes on a form and shape of its own, and you feel that you are the means and not the maker.

It seems to me that those songs that have been any good, I have nothing much to do with the writing of them.  The words have just crawled down my sleeve and come out on the page.  – Joan Baez

It’s a magical feeling, and it has produced some of my favorite results.  I was leafing through a book of portraits, and was absolutely struck by one of Samuel Beckett, the playwright.  He looked just like an Old Testament prophet, his craggy face filled with the marks of a long life, his eyes piercing – I could feel the weight of that stare, the rough texture of the skin.  I wanted to build that up, layer after layer, smearing the graphite with my hands to connect with that tactile sense in my brain.

When I look at the drawing, I remember the feeling of shaping the skin and picking out the pupils of the eyes.  I don’t know exactly how it turned into those marks on the page.  But I see what I felt when I looked at the picture.  I can pick out the technical flaws, but what matters to me is that I captured what I wanted to express.  The moment when you feel like you have broken through, at least for the moment … bliss.

But will it happen again?  I think that’s why artists can be so superstitious, with their muses and their rituals.

After waking up at 5 AM, poet Maya Angelou heads to a nearby hotel with legal pads, a bottle of sherry, a deck of playing cards, a Bible and Roget’s Thesaurus. Per her instructions, hotel staff members have removed all the art and photos from the room’s walls. Before leaving in the afternoon, Angelou usually completes between 10 and 12 pages during her stay, which she edits later that evening.

American writer John Cheever wore his only suit of clothing each morning as he rode the elevator down to a basement room where he worked. Upon arriving there, he would undress to his underwear, hang up his suit, and get to work. He would dress to go back upstairs for lunch and again at the end of his day when he would ride the elevator back home.

In addition to the enforced discipline of a ritual, it seems like they are trying to recreate the conditions that have brought the visitation upon them, because what if it never happens again?  What if it abandons you, leaving you sweating and struggling on your own, forcing out work that can never be as good as what came before it?  To be left staring glumly at a blank sheet that refuses to fill itself with prose breathing life, or a drawing imbued with its own spirit.

I manage to keep my clothes on and work at home .. though perhaps I’d be a better artist if I reconsidered?  I have learned that the only way I can tempt that inner spirit to come forth is to sit down, take a deep breath, and dive in .. even when the water looks cold and dark and uninviting, when there are a hundred other easier and more comfortable things to do. I try to create something every day, however small or incomplete, even when I’m not in the mood.  It’s like exercise – you don’t always feel like doing it, but once you start, you often get swept up in it.  I think it is exercise .. for the brain, and it takes just as much discipline to make yourself start.

You can sit there, tense and worried, freezing the creative energies, or you can start writing something. It doesn’t matter what. In five or ten minutes, the imagination will heat, the tightness will fade, and a certain spirit and rhythm will take over. – Leonard Bernstein

You must write every single day of your life… You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads… may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world. – Ray Bradbury

What are you creating today?

Are You Falling for the Old “Scooby Snack” Trick?

Remember Scooby?  He’ll do just about any dangerous, scary, unpleasant task that needs to be done, if he can get a Snooby snack or two out of it.  The Scooby snack is a classic example of “extrinsic” motivation – something external that you want.  At work, companies set up all kinds of carefully designed extrinsic motivations – money (bonuses, raises), status (levels, titles), and perks (nicer offices, first class travel).  Their goal is to get you to throw yourself into the work that the company needs to get done, regardless of how fulfilling you find it.  They are happy if you find yourself fulfilled, too, but the system is designed to encourage you to work hard even if you aren’t.

But isn’t that how the world works?  Isn’t the basis of capitalism the desire to better your situation?  Extrinsic motivation certainly works, up to a point.  However, the story is a bit more complicated than that.  We strive to get rewards, but often it isn’t purely about their absolute value.

The Drive for Status

As a species, we’re acutely conscious of our social status.  There have been a number of really interesting studies showing that more money is not the key to happiness after a certain point .. but that making less money than the people around us (regardless of income level) makes us unhappy.  In general, our status is more important than the absolute amount of money we make.  For example, one study examined 12,000 adults in Britain, ranking people based on geography, age, income, and educational level.   “Boyce and Moore found that an individual’s rank, viewed this way, was a stronger predictor of happiness than absolute wealth. The higher a person ranked within his age group or neighborhood, the more status he had and the happier he was regardless of how much he made.”

This focus on status makes a lot of sense when you consider that pre-historic humans were essentially dead if they weren’t part of a group, and that their ability to survive and have children was heavily dependent on their status.  The symbols of success or failure have evolved, but our basic drives have not changed (as you can see in Status Anxiety, Alain De Boton’s fun and thought-provoking book).

All of this research is good background if you decide that you are going to settle for extrinsic motivation – you might as well make sure that you pursue the things that will give the most happiness.  For example, you might be a lot better off hanging out with a different crowd rather than scrabbling for that raise or buying a fancier car.

But I think a much more interesting challenge is to focus on a different model – trying to find an environment that fosters your intrinsic motivation instead.

Motivation from Within

Think about the projects that really made you happy – at work, at home, at school, wherever.  When you were doing them, you couldn’t wait to dig in again.  They are the times you look back on with the most satisfaction.  What do they have in common?  I’m going to guess that it wasn’t the size of your weekly paycheck, the car you drove to work, or the title on your business card.  Those moments in your life are giving you valuable clues as to what really inspires you.

For me, the recipe is pretty simple:

  • I think that what I am doing is new and important
  • I have great people to work with
  • We are all pushing hard to achieve something together as a unified team
  • I am contributing in some meaningful way to the project

That’s pretty much it.  Or, as I like to say, “I want to be with people who inspire me, obsessing together over something worth obsessing about.”  If a project has those things going for it, I’m probably going to be happy.

There is also evidence that people do better work when they are intrinsically motivated.  For an entertaining walk through some of these ideas, try this presentation by Daniel Pink (who also wrote a book about the subject called Drive).  I find it really intriguing that, for a whole range of experiments, larger monetary rewards produced poorer results.  His argument is that there are three key things people seek: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.  He talks about how this model helps explain the open source software movement.

My own experience is pretty consistent with this model.  For me, autonomy shows up in two ways.  The most important one is that the team feels that it can do what needs to be done.  That’s often hard within large organizations, and was a significant frustration for me when I worked in one.  It’s one key reason why startups can be so fun – they don’t have much in the way of resources, but they certainly have a lot of autonomy!  Personal autonomy is less important to me – I like working closely with others and am happy to adapt my ideas if there are others around who are making them smarter.  Maybe I’ve just been lucky, but I’ve found that as long as the right people are involved, personal autonomy hasn’t been a big problem.

Purpose is crucial.  I have to believe in the project and that it is important.  I may be wrong, or others may believe that I am delusional .. that doesn’t matter.  What matters to me is that I believe it.

Mastery is also a core goal – I want to contribute to the project in some deeply important way by being excellent at something.  Ideally, I’d like to be great at some part of the work (so I add value right away) and I want to build mastery in other skills I didn’t have when I started.

What Motivates You?

I’ve had this conversation with many people, and most of them never sat down to think about their real intrinsic motivations.  Maybe autonomy, mastery, and purpose is it for you .. or maybe your answer will be different.  The key thing is to figure it out.  Otherwise, your employers will be happy to provide an endless supply of organizational Scooby snacks for you to covet and pursue.  Are you settling for that?

Cracking the Nut (Part 4) – Wrapping it Up

It’s time to get this decision landed.  What’s Slimy going to do?

Defining the Possible Solutions

Early in our project, we came up with a list of possible options for competing with BigSludge.  By this time, with all the discussion and analysis, we’re ready to update that list.  We’ve refined some of them, maybe some have crumpled under their own weight, maybe we have some new ones.

In our case, here is what came out of our investigations:

  • Direct head to head competition in their core markets looks like a losing strategy.  We went and talked to people on the front lines, we talked to some customers we’d like to convince to use our industrial slime, and we mapped out what kind of return we’d get from additional spending on marketing and sales.  It all looks lousy.  BigSludge is entrenched, they have relationships we can’t disrupt, the market is pretty locked in, and our products aren’t different enough to give us a unique value proposition.
  • We found some intriguing sub-markets where we are doing really well.  We’ve gotten serious traction selling slime for cleaning the grime out of industrial manufacturing machines.  And, you can cover buried power generation plants with it to reduce temperature fluctuation and do weather proofing.  BigSludge has no presence in those markets and our products work much better for these uses, so our specialized slime offerings are growing quickly and have a good head start.
  • The kid market for prank slime looks like a potential winner.  We’ve tested our slime out with kids, our test version is flying off the shelves, and it’s showed up in a couple of edgy TV shows as the Next Big Thing.  Word of mouth is strong.
  • The kid market will take several years to develop.  Based on every precedent we’ve looked at, it just isn’t possible to grow a large new toy market quickly.  No product we looked at that relied on selling through retail channels was able create a new category and grow to a large size in less than five years.

So our updated options are:

  1. Aggressively pursue the specialty commercial markets
  2. Aggressively pursue the kid market
  3. Do a blend of both

The next step is (yes, you saw this coming) to write them down.  We put together a summary for each:

  • Define the option in one page.  Capture the intuition for it, and keeping it short forces us to stick to the essentials.
  • What’s the plan – outline how we’d execute on this idea in very concrete terms.  Milestones, key steps.
  • What you have to believe.  I learned about this approach from a class I took on strategy, and I’ve found that it is a really useful way to capture the key assumptions for a particular option.  You write down the key things that you have to believe in order for the option to be viable/optimal:
Option What you Have to Believe
Pursue specialty commercial markets Slimy can make enough revenue from these markets to sustain our growth needs and can protect our position from BigSludge and other competitors.
Pursue kid market The market is big, viable, and will develop quickly enough to compensate for relatively flat growth in the core business.
Pursue both Slimy Inc is capable of effectively carrying both initiatives forward at the same time (resources, time/focus of management team).  And, the kid market will be slow enough to develop that we need some nearer term revenue.

Evaluating the Options

By the time you have written down the options in more detail, sometimes you will find that the decision basically makes itself.  It is obvious to everyone that one makes the most sense and you are done.  That’s a nice outcome.  But let’s assume we aren’t so lucky; how are we going to decide?

The next thing I do is to assess every option against every one of the criteria we came up with in part 2 (link).  There are two basic ways to go after this – quantitative and qualitative.

Quantitative – if you want, you can create a precise mathematical model to weigh your options.  You can build a spreadsheet with a numerical value for each of the criteria against each option and a weighting factor per criterion.  Then the spreadsheet will happily compute a score for each option, and the highest score ought to be the answer, right?  I’ve done that before, and it has been useful on occasion, but I think it generally gives a false sense of precision to the exercise.  Your tidy spreadsheet full of numbers and formulas can leave you convinced that you are engaged in a scientific analysis.  But you aren’t, really.  At the end of the day, you are making a decision based on (informed) guesses about the future and intuitively chosen priorities.  So I usually don’t bother to build that spreadsheet.

Qualitative – what I generally find more useful is to assign a rough score (maybe 1/2/3 or A/B/C/D/F) to each option for each of the criteria.  Have a justification for each score, so you don’t spend all your time arguing about B’s vs. C’s when people look at the table.  Then eyeball the result and you are in a pretty good position to decide, or to have the debate among the decision makers if it isn’t up to you.  The Slimy, Inc table might look something like this (note that we updated our criteria a bit):

  Specialty commercial Kid market Both
Medium term revenue (3 yrs) A C B
Long term revenue (5-10 yrs) B A B
Risk of revenue projection B D C
Ability to execute A C D

It might seem much too simplistic at first to distill many, many hours of analysis and detail into a little chart with A/B/C/D on it.  But I have found that there is remarkable power in simplicity.  It’s like the old line about writing a shorter letter if you had more time.  Having to summarize a mountain of analysis in a very succinct form forces you to commit.  Complexity is often a security blanket against making a hard call – as long you as you can say “on the one hand, on the other hand”, you can avoid making a decision.  By committing to the values in the table, it gets you in the habit and helps walk you towards the harder ultimate decision that you are trying to make.

And now that you have all the analysis done, and summarized .. get whomever you need in a room, and DECIDE!


I hope that this approach to analyzing issues has given you some tools that you can use the next time you are confronted with a difficult decision.  Use as many or as few of the tools as you need .. in some cases, as in Part I, you might just pick a couple of them.  Other times, when facing a really complex and involved question, you might need to throw the kitchen sink at it.

Remember that no tool or approach will make a tough decision for you – that’s your job.  And a hard decision will stay hard no matter what.  But a framework like this one can let you approach it with what I like to call systematic subjectivity – you make your judgments in a systematic and thoughtful way that helps you wade through unknowns and emotional entrapments.  Good luck!

P.S.  Slimy decided to aggressively pursue the specialty commercial markets.  They will continue to incubate the kid products to see whether they get further traction.

What is Your “Super-Power”?

It’s a skill that has always come easily to you and you wonder why other people seem to struggle so much to master it.  Your team automatically looks to you when it is needed and assumes that you will be the one to do it.  You invent new and creative angles while you are daydreaming in the shower.  When you look back on a project, the times you were exercising this skill are the times that come most vividly to mind.  You feel like you are flying when you are using it.

These are all clues that can help you find what my old team called your super-power.

What Does a Super-Power Look Like?

Your super-power might be something that people are used to thinking about – you are amazing at playing the piano, or speaking in public, or throwing a ball.  But it might be something much less obvious.  There are many, many different kinds of things that people excel at.  While our society celebrates remarkable skill in athletics or performance, I love to look for and to be inspired by unusual intellectual achievements.

For example, I’ve known some truly amazing programmers.  I was one of the best coders around when I was an undergrad .. and then I met these people, who just utterly crush me in their ability to construct large systems at seemingly super-human speed.  I worked with one of them who could hold tens of thousands of lines of code in his mind; he could see instantly how to create some new feature or modify the design in a fundamental way.  I could work through the system and build up the knowledge in my head to get to the same goal, but he had the whole system on tap and immediately saw the solution.  No amount of practice on my part would ever leave me able to match him at that particular skill.  It was his super-power.

Richard Feynman was a brilliant Nobel Prize winning physicist who wrote a set of highly entertaining stories about his life.  One of my favorite anecdotes was about his use of visual metaphor to grasp deeply complex abstract ideas.  He would use this to test new topology theorems:

For instance, the mathematicians would come in with a terrific theorem, and they’re all excited.  As they’re telling me the conditions of the theorem, I construct something which fits all the conditions … the balls turn colors, grow hairs, or whatever in my head as they put more conditions on.  Finally they state the theorem, which is some dumb thing about the ball which isn’t true for my hairy green ball thing, so I say, “False!”

He was famous for creating visualizations of abstruse ideas that would let you use intuition rather than mathematical formulas.  Other physicists would be laboriously building up their mental models using mathematics and other abstractions and he could leap to insights that they could never have gotten without hours or days of contemplation.  Now that’s a cool super-power.  But it isn’t one that most people would think of as a “skill”.

I hope these examples encourage you to look beyond the obvious and find the skills where you really stand out.

Investing in Your Super-Power

Even if you are naturally great at something, you have to hone it.  Michael Jordan was legendary for ruthlessly pushing himself to practice and prepare harder than anyone else.  If he had settled for a pickup game or two every week, he’d never have become the incredible player that he was.  Louis Pasteur said “Let me tell you the secret that has led me to my goals: my strength lies solely in my tenacity.”  There are many, many similar quotes from people who have accomplished great things.  It is consistent with recent scientific studies, popularized by people like Malcolm Gladwell and Geoff Colvin, that magic happens when a talented person uses deliberate practice to develop a skill for 10,000 hours.

But if you are going to invest that kind of time and effort into something, you’ll get a much better result if you are betting on something you excel at.  Lots of people are pretty good at lots of things .. you’ll achieve a more distinctive result if you invest massive time and energy in something that you are remarkably good at.  And, you’ll be much more likely to stick with it, if you enjoy it.  So I believe that one of the great quests is to find those things and to design your life to practice and exercise them as much as you can.  I’m convinced that it is also one of the ways to be happiest and most passionate about what you are doing.

Enthusiasm is one of the most powerful engines of success. When you do a thing, do it with all your might. Put your whole soul into it. Stamp it with your own personality. Be active, be energetic, be enthusiastic and faithful, and you will accomplish your object. Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.      Ralph Waldo Emerson

Finding Places to Apply It

Once you have figured out what you do distinctively well and commit to honing that skill towards excellence, you need to find a place to use it where it is valuable and valued (those are not the same thing!).  Any super-power is probably going to come in handy now and then, but you won’t get equal leverage from it in every environment.  Being a dynamic and inspiring public speaker is not as useful to an accountant as it is to a teacher.  Being rigorously analytical is probably not the first super-power you’d pick if you want to be a great actor.

Ask yourself what activities rely on and benefit disproportionately from your superpower.  Where do people congregate who are amazing at it?  Whom do you admire and seek to emulate while doing it?  What job do they have?  Where do they work?  These are all clues.  Ask around, too .. there may be many worlds of activity you don’t know anything about, where your abilities may be much more valued than you realize.

You’d also like to be in an organizational culture that values your skill.  Visual design is crucial in building great software, but different companies in the software industry vary dramatically in how much they value designers.  Find somebody else who is great at what you do (maybe they blog or write articles?) and figure out where they work.  More clues.  You probably won’t find any permanent answers .. but over time, through successive approximation, you can find productive places to exercise your super-power.  You might have to design your own job (or your own company) to get there – super-powers often don’t fit into boxes that were neatly labeled by other people.

Oliver Wendell Holmes said something that I’ve tried to take to heart: “Most people die with the music still in them.”  Find your super-power .. and let it sing!

Cracking the Nut (Part 3) – Heart of the Analysis

Carrying forward from part 1 and part 2, we’ve gotten the foundations laid down, so let’s keep powering ahead.


This is the quadrant where we focus on two areas: what we need to know that is knowable and what’s blocking us.

Know What Is Knowable

As we saw in Part 2 (link), there is a big debate within Slimy Inc about the potential size of the kid’s slime market and our ability to generate revenue in the commercial slime market against the dominance of BigSludge.  While these are both predictions about the future and hence cannot be perfectly known, they are subject to analysis.  By bringing some data into the conversation, we can help reduce the uncertainty around the value to assign to these criteria for our various options.

Figuring out the potential kid market is probably the hardest problem.  There is always a lot of risk in any new kind of product, but we can do many kinds of analysis to get insight: look at comparable products that we would be competing with/displacing, consider which channels we could use to go to market and how hard it will be to break into them, look at the historical ramp of comparable products, and so forth.  Beyond analysis, we need to actually get into the market and mix it up in the real world with some customers and partners.  We could sell samples through a handful of selected toy stores, or give some away to kids and get their reactions, or do a limited advertising campaign and see what kind of response we get.  The key thing here is, as Steve Blank says, to get out of the building.  All of these tests will give us some data about how much our target audience will actually want our product, what market size we could aspire to, how to build our sales at what cost, and how quickly we could expect it to grow under best/average/worst case.

The other question should be easier to answer – we probably have a lot of insight into our ability to compete with BigSludge, because we have products in market and have been selling them.  There is always the possibility of some brilliant new stroke that changes the game, but in the absence of that kind of insight, we probably know the channels, the costs, the margins, and the levers that exist in the current business.  So we can estimate with some degree of accuracy how much revenue/margin we can generate doing the kinds of things that are conventionally done.  If somebody has a clever idea for disruption, we should do some analysis/investigation to get a sense of how much to expect from it.

The net of these exercises should be some real data on what we can expect under a variety of different assumptions.  That helps assign a value to each criterion for the proposal under consideration.  Think about each one and ask whether you are ready to assess the proposals against it, or if you need more information to do it as well as possible.

Know What’s Blocking the Decision

Many things can block the ability to make a decision aside from the inherent uncertainty about what to do.  In our case, after thinking it through, we realize that there are three:

  1. This decision is supposedly owned by the VP of marketing, but everyone knows that he doesn’t have the authority to make it stick.
  2. One of the original founders of Slimy Inc., who is very influential, is hell-bent on going into the kid slime market.  He’s going to reject any plan that doesn’t focus on that.
  3. The possibly acquisition of Slimy by BigSludge is really distracting senior management.  They aren’t sure how aggressively they want to go after BigSludge until that’s landed, so they will be reluctant to rock the boat.

Any of these three things could torpedo our whole effort.  There is no point in beavering away and coming up with a great answer, if nobody is going to pay attention or act on it.  So we have to get all three resolved in some fashion, or we need to reconsider if there is any point to the whole project.


That leads us to the “housekeeping” quadrant – all the scaffolding we need to drive the project.  There are a series of important questions we need to think through:

  • Who are the stakeholders and what is their role?  Who can make the decision and make it stick?  Who needs to be consulted before the decision is landed?  Who can veto it?  Who needs to know after we’ve landed it?
  • What are we delivering?  A deck?  A presentation?  A document?  To whom?  When is it due?
  • Workback/milestones – are there any needed steps along the way?  Maybe an early review where we present progress and get feedback?
  • Key open issues – from our analysis so far, we should have a pretty good idea of the open issues – list them, get them owned and driven and landed.
  • Workstreams – are there any sub-projects that have a life of their own and need to be owned/driven?  Maybe that analysis of the kid market, which might involve finding stores and doing trial sales and evaluating results and doing mini-ad campaigns.
  • Next actions – what specific actions need to happen next?  Who will do them?

That’s the heart of the analysis.  In the next post, we’ll wrap it up and land the decision.

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