That’s me

The first time it happened, I was 25 years old and working in Spain on a consulting project for a big Portuguese telecom company.

I was on a small project team responsible for a pile of data analysis that would drive the main project recommendations, and we were nearing a final deadline. The analysis, it turned out, was way over my head. And yet, as I looked around the team and our small office for someone to tell me how to go about it, I had this sinking feeling that the person who knew best what to do was me.

It was terrifying.

Partially the fear came from objectively not knowing enough. I had neither the analytical chops to know how to proceed nor the network of relationships to quickly find someone who could help in time. And I was sure that our firm was getting paid far too much to make recommendations based on what I knew.

So while that moment, stemming from poor planning and preparation, is something to avoid, getting to have that feeling was priceless.

I still remember the quiet, mortifying stillness of, “It’s up to me.”

What an important feeling to be able to identify, because once you’ve felt it you can’t unfeel it, and then you can notice that feeling and notice how much easier it is to kick a decision somewhere – up, down, sideways – to gather more information or maybe to put off deciding entirely.

We kick this habit like any other, with both discipline and nuance.

If you want to learn to swim better, or hit a ball better, or do a yoga pose better, you start with the big muscle groups and body angles and work your way towards subtler adjustments. Just so in the workplace: you begin by making calls in the big, obvious moments where you’ve got no choice but to decide; and you work your way through to smaller moments of stalling, hesitation, and the magical sleight of hand we all engage in to open up “outs” in case things turn out wrong.

It is so much easier to avoid responsibility and future blame.  And it is so much more important to practice putting ourselves on the hook, to practice being the kind of person who makes calls, to practice stepping in to uncertainty.

Step up. Decide. Then make it great.

The person we’re waiting for? That’s you.

That’s not what I’d do

You have two options when you hear this from someone you like and respect.

Either you decide that their wisdom, experience and perspective bring something to the decision that you didn’t see, and they are right.

Or you decide that there are things you know that they don’t know, things you can see that they cannot, and that even though it feels like 9 times out 10 you’d want to follow their advice, this time you won’t.

Either way, your job at this point is to hear the advice, process it, make adjustments, and take action with conviction. Getting stuck in between what both of you thought is almost never right, and moving forward tepidly is the worst outcome of all.

Six months later

When I was in business school, private equity was all the rage. I’d never been an investment banker, and I didn’t even really understand what private equity was, but I did throw my hat into the ring for a few private equity jobs.

The notion of actually getting any of these jobs filled me with dread. I had no passion for that work, and I only managed to land interviews with lesser-known firms where the people I met seemed to truly dislike their jobs and the lives they’d signed up for for the next 5-10 years. I vividly remember the pit I’d get in my stomach waiting for these firms’ final decisions – fearing I might actually get one of the jobs I’d applied for.

When I did get a couple of those job offers, I remember discussing them with classmates who said I had no choice but to take them. Objectively I was not qualified, yet I’d managed to get my foot in the door. I should take the job to learn the ropes, as a stepping stone to the next one and the next one and… My friends essentially rolled their eyes at me for even considering turning the jobs down.

One person, not a classmate, shared a different perspective. He said, “six months from now, all of these people who are telling you what to do, all of these people whose approval feels really important right now, they’ll all be gone. Six months from now it will just be you sitting at that desk at whatever hour of the day. Not them, you. Think of how you’ll feel six months from now when you’re the one doing the job. That will tell you what you should do.”

This isn’t a post about following our passions. Even the chance to follow a true passion only comes up once in a while – most of the time we don’t know what our passions are or we don’t have the skills, the perspective or the wisdom to really make the dent we dream of making in the universe.

But we do, each and every day, and especially when we are at real junctures in our lives, have the opportunity to understand the choices we make. They are our choices, and the minute we own them is the minute we understand who it is who is walking our path.

It is only us.

I hate my microwave

I moved last year, which was a lot of work but has ultimately been great.  One of the small drawbacks of the kitchen in my new house is that there’s no good space for a microwave, so our only criterion we had when buying a microwave was that it be as small as possible.  We found a suitable-looking Panasonic “Inverter” microwave on Amazon – small, a polished stainless steel look, good-enough customer reviews, inexpensive.  It’s terrible.

Panasonic inverterBy way of background, my favorite button on my last GE Profile microwave was the “Add 30 seconds” button.  This button not only had the right increment (now that microwaves are so powerful, 30 seconds is a more relevant measure than one minute) but the “Add 30 seconds” button actually started the microwave.  You hit just one button and the thing turns on.

Contrast this with my Panasonic.  It has a big knob that you turn to add time, poorly solving (because it over/undershoots too easily) a problem I didn’t have in the first place. The microwave does have an “Add minute” button but it’s one in a grouping of five of tiny indistinguishable buttons, one of which is a “More/Less” button that as far as I can tell does absolutely nothing.  The “Start” button is in that grouping as well, just as tiny as the rest of them.  What a mess.

I’m sure the Panasonic design team doesn’t think they’ve made a terrible microwave.  They’re probably proud of all the tricks their gadget can do.  And I suspect that there’s a microwave power user out there who might appreciate the refinements – though I suspect it’s still poorly designed from a user experience perspective.

The interesting question of course is how Panasonic succeeded in willfully ignoring the most common use case for 95% of their users 95% of the time.  Instead of stopping to figure out what they actually wanted their microwave to be good at, they chose instead to show their customers everything they could make it do.

Easy and trivial to chuckle at this sort of thing, except that this unwillingness to make real choices is everywhere, and it’s reflected in decisions big and small.  It’s why most nonprofit appeals and stories are indistinguishable from one another.  The message is, “we do lots of great things, we’re happy to talk to you about it, but mostly here’s a story that shows that the work we do has heart.”

Without deciding who you want to make happy, where you want to be great, you end up in an indecisive morass of nothingness.

Need proof?  Look at the next five nonprofit newsletters you get in your inbox.  Four of them won’t have a breath of life in them, a whiff that they were written by an actual human being with a voice and a personality.  And the one out of five that actually stand out for having a real voice still will often fall in the trap of 18 ancillary links and articles and “follow us” links and job postings and donate buttons and…and…and…because we may as well put that all in there if we’re sending the thing to 10,000 people.

As usual, the team at shows how to get this right, and reminds us that Swiss Army Knives are good at almost nothing.

(p.s. sadly it seems that the Microwave Oven Standard UI Project never really got off the ground.)

Four tips for better group decision-making

I’m most of the way through Bruce Feiler’s The Secrets of Happy Families.  The book takes the best, recent insights on how groups/organizations perform and applies it to families and raising kids.  This results in surprising suggestions like using agile development principles to make getting kids to school on time less stressful or coming together to write down and display family mission statements.  Feiler is non-doctrinaire in his writing, avoiding “must do” and “top 7” lists in favor of a series of surprising, useful, often counter-intuitive recommendations, many of which seem worth a real shot.

Outside of the book’s relevance for anyone raising kids, The Secrets of Happy Families is also a great refresher on new thinking in organizational behavior.  There’s lots to mine here, and I thought Feiler’s summary of four factors for better group decision-making were particularly on point.  (all the quotations below are from The Secrets of Happy Families).

  1. Too Few Cooks Spoil the Broth.  This addresses the wisdom of crowds (Surowiecki) and how large groups with the right information can be smarter than the smartest person in the group.  The part that I found most interesting was: “Uzzi [a sociologist] analyzed 321 Broadway musicals and found that teams of people who had never met did not work well together and produced more flops.  Meanwhile, groups that had collaborated before were also not that successful, because they tended to rehash ideas and not come up with fresh concepts.  The sweet spot was a mix of strong and weak ties, where trust existed but new ideas could flow.”  To me this speaks to the need to have fluidity of both people and ideas (often from outside the organization) to get to the best decisions.
  2. Vote first, talk later. “I was shocked to learn that groups are better at making decisions if participants express their views at the start of a meeting before they’ve had a chance to listen to anybody else.  Countless studies have shown that once the discussion begins, the people who speak first tend to persuade others of their position, even when their positions are wrong.  Daniel Kahneman offered a helpful blueprint. ‘A simple rule can help: before an issue is discussed, all members should be asked to write a very brief summary of their position.’   This seems like the easiest tactic of all to employ – simply ask people to write down what they think at the start of an important conversation.
  3. Hold a premortem.  “As the conversation reaches a climax, it’s important to encourage people to express their true opinions, especially if they disagree with the group…psychologist Gary Klein calls [this] a ‘premortem.’  When teams engage in prospective hindsight…they increase their ability to identify what might possibly go wrong…[e.g.] ‘Let’s imagine it’s a year from now.  We’re following this plan, and it hasn’t worked out.  Let’s write down what we think would have gone wrong. Klein says the main value of a premortem is to legitimize doubts and let skeptics voice their concerns.”     What’s powerful about this is that it engages us in a concrete thought experiment that grounds a conversation of “what if’s” and complex dependencies.  By placing ourselves in a future space, we can see the decision from a new vantage point and understand the risks and opportunities of the different paths we might take.
  4. The Law of Two Women.  “One night I was having dinner with an executive at Google, and I asked him to tell me the most significant change he’s seen in how his company runs meetings.  Without hesitating, he told me they always make sure there is more than one woman in the room.  He then told me about the study that led to this principle…”  I won’t summarize the subsequent MIT study – the punchline is “groups that had a higher proportion of females were more effective.  These groups were more sensitive to input from everyone, more capable of reaching compromise, and more efficient at making decisions.”      This one is fascinating and, again, very easy to implement.

Increasingly I’m coming to appreciate the importance and power of small groups that come together to make decisions.  I’m also coming to understand that just putting a handful of smart, effective people together and saying “be an effective group” is a pretty terrible strategy.  You need trust and safety and mutual investment and a sense of shared purpose and higher goals.  And you also benefit greatly from tactics that are proven to result in better decisions.

This list seems like a great way to start the important work of making your groups as high-performing as the individuals in them.

Act on your gut

By now we know about the power of first impressions (thanks to Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, among others).  We form impressions very quickly (in seconds) and often those impressions have strong predictive power.

But the expression “go with your gut” sells this idea short – it implies your gut instead of your analytical mind…like your innards have some perceptive power that’s not possessed between your ears.

It’s not about choose which part of your body to listen to, it’s about acting on what you know is true, but that you’re afraid to do.  For instance:

“I’m not crazy about what’s being proposed here, but I’ll let it kick around for a while instead of speaking up.”

“I don’t feel excited about hiring this person, but her qualifications are great, let’s push her on to the next round.”

“It feels like we’re moving too slowly here, but that’s what’s in our strategic plan.”

“The last thing we need is another policy, but I guess it’s the prudent thing to do.”

As Mike Karnjanaprakorn wrote about yesterday, one of the three (only three!) things the Head of Product at a company has to do to be successful is to say “no” to 99% of feature ideas so she can get things done and ship quickly.  I doubt that the people who are best at this know more than everyone else (about which features to say “no” to), but I’m sure they act more on what they’re thinking and are great at sticking to their guns, even when there’s tons of pressure to cave.

You gut and your head know what you need to do; the discipline is in learning to act on that feeling time and again to test what you secretly suspect…which is that that small voice inside your head (or gut) is right.

Predictably Irrational

Last week I talked some about the “mental models” we carry around to simplify the world.  One of the most powerful, underlying mental models we carry around is about rationality – that people are predominately rational, and that behave (by and large) in a rational fashion.

While I’m incredibly interested in the field of behavioral economics, I must admit that I still cling to the vestiges of beliefs held earlier in my life, that people are primarily rational with a hint of irrationality thrown in every now and again.

But what if people are primarily irrational and, even more powerful, what if they’re predictably irrational?  That’s the question MIT economist Dan Ariely asks in his book Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions. What’s so fun about this book is that Prof Ariely  takes a simple, objective, experimental approach to see how people really act instead of believing in how they’re supposed to ask.  Here’s an example from early in the book that floored me (my summary, not his):

A few years ago, Dan Ariely received an email from The Economist magazine offering three subscription options:

  1. A year of access to The Economist website for $59
  2. A year of receiving the print edition of The Economist for $125
  3. A year of receiving the print edition of The Economist plus free access to the website for $125

You’ll notice immediately that options two and three both cost $125. Prof. Airely figured the clever folks at the Economist had their reasons, and he wanted to understand them.  So he tested this offer by offering it to 100 of his students.  The result? 16 of his students selected the web access and 84 selected the print + online option.  No one chose option 2 (print only).

Hard to know what to make of that result on its own; maybe option 3 really is so appealing that a rational, value-maximizing decision maker should choose it more than 4 out of 5 times.

To test this theory, Prof. Airely ran the experiment a second time, but with only two options:

  1. A year of access to The Economist website for $59
  2. A year of receiving the print edition of The Economist plus free access to the website for $125

If the students were essentially rational actors, the removal of the option that no one chose (option 2) would have no impact.  How could it matter to remove an irrelevant option?  But it mattered a lot.  68 students now chose the web-only access, and 32 chose print+web.  Removing an irrelevant option shifted the preference for web-only access from 16% to 68% of the students. That’s a powerful result.

Put simply, we’re terrible at ascertaining the absolute value of things; we only seem to be able to hone in on relative value.  So the impact of the irrelevant option was to communicate that the original 3rd option (print + web) was a “great deal.”

Depending on where you sit and what you’re hoping to accomplish, you can use this one insight in lots of different ways.  The first step is to realize that when you’re helping someone make a decision, the available options and what people don’t choose may be as or more important than what people do choose.