Do less, then obsess


Andrew Hill in the FT sees the answer to overload as simply focusing on less, in order to achieve more

Prof Hansen studied the performance of 5,000 people and discovered that those who pursued a strategy of “do less, then obsess” ranked 25 percentage points higher than those who did not embrace the practice. He and his team also found that it was dangerous to assume that “passion” was a key to success. In fact, passion can lead people down the wrong road, to failure or burnout. The best performers in the study were those who matched passion for their job with a purpose, which could be as simple as making a meaningful contribution to the organisation.

In the spirit of focus, Baumeister and Tierney, in their book Willpower, recount a story which set my own attitudes about priroitising for years to come.

So how exactly does a modern general plan for the future? That question was put to a group of them recently by a psychologist who had been invited to give a talk at the Pentagon about managing time and resources. To warm up the elite group of generals, he asked them all to write a summary of their approach to managing their affairs. To keep it short, he instructed each to do this in twenty-five words or less. The exercise stumped most of them. None of the distinguished men in uniform could come up with anything.

The only general who managed a response was the lone woman in the room. She had already had a distinguished career, having worked her way up through the ranks and been wounded in combat in Iraq. Her summary of her approach was as follows: “First I make a list of priorities: one, two, three, and so on. Then I cross out everything from three on down.”

The other generals might have objected to her approach, arguing that everyone has more than two goals, and that some projects—like, say, D-day—require more than two steps. But this general was on to something. Hers was a simple version of a strategy for reconciling the long-term with the short-term, the fussy with the fuzzy.

The simplicity of just two priorities is viciously hard to keep to – but incredibly powerful if you can do it. The most striking thing about the story is not just that only one general had the best answer, it was that they were the only one with an answer. The others couldn’t describe a system – and therefore didn’t have one.

We’re working with OKRs, a goal setting and reporting system popularised by Intel and Google, for the first time in my team at Brilliant Noise. So far I’m enjoying the process – I like that the OKR approach is as is about the process and the trying as much as the end goals. Do-or-fail end metrics warp incentives and undo alignment as much as create it sometimes.

Creating better systems that move you in the right direction, rather than big, binary targets that sound great to say, but feel awful to actually set out and achieve, can be very demotivating. As Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert says in his book How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big:

If you do something every day, it’s a system. If you’re waiting to achieve it someday in the future, it’s a goal.

: : Hat tip to Neil Perkin’s excellent post for reminding me of the Adams quote: For Real Change, Systems Trump Goals

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Thinking with machines

From Ray Dalio’s fascinating book, Principles.

During those terrible days after 9/ 11, when the whole country was being whipsawed by emotion, or the weeks between September 19 and October 10, 2008, when the Dow fell 3,600 points, there were times I felt like hugging our computers. They kept their cool no matter what. This combination of man and machine is wonderful. The process of man’s mind working with technology is what elevates us—it’s what has taken us from an economy where most people dig in the dirt to today’s Information Age. It’s for that reason that people who have common sense, imagination, and determination, who know what they value and what they want, and who also use computers, math, and game theory, are the best decision makers there are. At Bridgewater, we use our systems much as a driver uses a GPS in a car: not to substitute for our navigational abilities but to supplement them.

Dalio treats principles as decision-making algorithms. He writes down what he thinks works as a decision-making process, then compares the results.

He’s also built a company culture that is all about finding the best information in order to make the best decisions – something he calls an idea meritocracy. So developing processes that allow people to make decisions in tandem with machines has been a natural extension of his approach.

It reminds me of Gary Kasparov’s “advanced chess” – also known more exotically as centaur chess – in which humans play alongside a machine. Players have likened it to moving from running to Formula One racing – it makes chess high speed, with ideas and approaches quickly tested with machines, or new angles the human polayer hasn’t considered suddenly presented as possibilities by the machine.

Links:

  • Ray Dalio described his ideas meritocracy model in a TED Talk.
  • I talked about Kasparov and “bicycles for the mind” a few years ago at the Inspiration conference.

Inventing futures we want, and some we don’t

Image: Popular Mechanics – the ciy of the future (1928)

“The best way to predict the future is to invent it,” said Alan Kay, the pioneering computer scientist.

In this context “invent” here means to build not just to imagine or to conjure a vision. Futures are built things, technology and humans made into new shapes and structures. Imagining the future is a way of thinking about possible ways things might evolve – often these days as a way of satirising the present, rather than a serious effort to imagine how things could be – with a fair wind, and some lucky politics – you know, better than they are today. We are well served with literary and cinematic dystopias, but there are apparently few creative efforts to imagine a brighter tomorrow.

A lovely post from Futurism surveys how people a century ago imagined the future. There are delightful near misses – “correspondence cinema” is almost Netflix – and amusingly accurate forecasts. The times 100 years ago were not unlike ours – as we teeter on the edge of an AI, automated, bio-engineered century:

People in the early 20th century were hopeful about the future innovation might bring.The technology that came out of World War I, and the growing potential brought by electricity (half of all U.S. homes had electric power by 1925) had many looking ahead to the coming century. Futurists of the early 1900s predicted an incredible boom in technology that would transform human lives for the better.

Much of this came to pass – along with world wars, genocide and new fangled ways to to suffer and die, which we’re still working on all the time. And then again – there are billions more humans alive today than in 1917, with proportionately fewer afflicted by child mortality, living longer, less likely to be hungry or poor.

At the moment, reading Fire and Fury about our recent, implausible global political past and reading the ongoing news about our even less convincing present, I wonder if we are too confused by the contemporary to see anything but collapse and catastrophe in our future. It could be a fertile fictional world to explore though, a better one. Could be worth a try.

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Low friction brands

We used to wonder about the future of advertising in brand marketing – now we are wondering about the future of brands themselves.

In his book about the tech giants of the 20-teens, The Four, Scott Galloway casts Google and Amazon as threatening the very existence of traditional consumer brands:

The insights into consumer behavior Google gleans from 3.5 billion queries each day make this horseman the executioner of traditional brands and media. Your new favorite brand is what Google returns to you in .0000005 second.

Galloway is nothing if not a master of the pithy line – but he backs up his argument with data:

the cost of customer acquisition continues to rise as consumers’ loyalty to brands erodes. You have to keep reacquiring them. In 2004, 47 percent of affluent consumers could name a favorite retail brand; six years later that number dropped to 28 percent. That makes pure e-commerce play increasingly dangerous. Nobody wants to be at the mercy of Google and disloyal consumers.

Of the thirteen firms that have outperformed the S&P five years in a row (yes, there’s just thirteen), only one of them is a consumer brand—Under Armour. Note: it will be off next year’s list. […] Amazon, armed with infinite capital provided by eager investors, is leading a war on brands to starch the margin from brands and deliver it back to the consumer. Death, for brands, has a name … Alexa.

There is supporting evidence for this view in the synchronised slump of Publicis and Unilever shares. The brand-media-advertising complex is looking shakier by the passing week.

At the consumer end of things, take a look at the rise of new consumer tech firms, described in a New York Times article this week – The Hidden Player Spurring a Wave of Cheap Consumer Devices: Amazon.

When you sit in an Uber in Brighton or a Didi in Beijing you will see evidence of this – $20 dash-cameras, car gadgets, at least two smartphones – all costing in total less than the ridiculously high-end luxury UX and glass luxury that might be your iPhone X.

Because of its scale and relative lack of interest in profit – the manufacturers and the consumer are connected by Amazon without it feeling or acting like a middleman in the transaction.

Allen Fung, a general manager at Sunvalley, which owns several upstart consumer tech brands explains that this isn’t about cheap, low quality tech:

It’s not a race to the bottom,” Mr. Fung said. “Sellers are forced to create better products at lower pricing, and sellers who aren’t able to do that just get weeded out.”

Competing and winning on Amazon means more than just cheap though – good customer service is essential part of the equation.

Mr. Fung recently spent a couple of hours providing an in-depth look at how he manages his company’s brands on Amazon. To win a certain product category — portable chargers, say, or children’s night lights — the company is obsessive about monitoring customer feedback, including the rate at which its products are returned. Sunvalley recently hired a team of customer service agents to respond to complaints. It has also hired industrial designers to improve the look of its devices — which also helps it stand out from other commodity devices on Amazon’s results page.

I find these brands, such as Anker to be ones that only really come into my consciousness when I’m looking for something on Amazon. They carry little cachet or style but with their reviews to back them up they are like cousins of the Amazons Basics range – as cheap as it gets but definitely reliable.

Perhaps we can call these low-friction brands, or the children of Amazon. The brand is built in the substance not the surface of their offer. the friction is low, because the investment in “brand” is limited to a logo, a name and a focused customer experience from purchase to product to support.

They are cutting out advertising and branding costs to lower cost and increase value to the consumer. Low-cost used to mean poor quality and zero customer service – because of the power of transparent reviews on Amazon, low-cost means a complete focus on what customers actually want.

Is this a new mode of branding, a utilitarian subset, or a glimpse of a future where brands are what Google Home or Amazon’s Alexa tell you are the best for whatever you need in that moment?

 

 

 

Disinformation content production

Russian disinformation factories of Russia follow the Buzzfeed content model, according to the ever-insightful digital strategist, Rob Blackie. They throw themes and formats at the wall and see what sticks, to paraphrase his jargon free interpretation of the approach.

Buzzfeed doesn’t care whether listicles or explainers are there internet’s sharing drug of choice this week, it’s editors go where the attention signals take them. Similarly, when trying to exacerbate divisions in Europe or the US, online disinformation teams in St Petersburg try out whatever offensive, divisive content they can in all sorts of formats and then do more of the things that work – work at stirring discord in rivals’ societies that is.

Competing for attention is as much the domain of intelligence agencies as news startups these days. Although backing from the Kremlin or alt-right hedge fund owners solves the business model side of the equation for dezinformatsiya peddlers. Buzzfeed has to rely on markets rather than ideologues to keep the lights on.

Buzzfeed blues

A couple of years ago my advice for an organisation completing for attention online was “copy Buzzfeed“. Buzzfeed understands the nature of the web – that you can’t predict what content succeed, but you can run as many experiments as you like and build on successes earlier and faster if you give credits access to the right data.

The editorial content model at Buzzfeed still works – but the company is having to dial down its aversion to advertising in order to make money, even as the digital add market is getting tougher. It’s also cutting 100 jobs this week.

So copy Buzzfeed’s data-supported content approach, but find another business model? That would seem to be the right approach.

Brand marketing: From media to capability 

The facades of empires always look most impressive just before they fall.

The same goes for industrial giants and even whole industries.

The Roman Empire didn’t disappear. Neither did the British. But the centre of power in the world shifted, first chaotically, confusingly and then all of a sudden when the fog of revolution cleared.

Newspapers haven’t disappeared. Record labels haven’t disappeared. But there was a storm of change, a half-decade or so of intense uncertainty in each industry as it was ravaged by digital disruption. And then… new power structures and new masters emerged.

Media companies won’t disappear either, but their place at the centre of the brand marketing system is ending.

To Google and Facebook the advertising revenues, away from the media owners, at an expanding an inexorable rate. To automation and in-house teams and consultancies go the muscle and the influence once held by the media buying agencies.

Image result for scott galloway google and facebook advertising revenue chart

Image: Scott Galloway/L2Insights

The CMO’s closest advisor ten years ago, maybe even five, would have worked for a media agency. Now, it could be a chief digital officer, a management consultant, a creative technologist, even an author or similar species of seer.

The new order has yet to emerge, but the days of the media agency as the centre of the brand marketing system is ending.

Little by little. Then all at once.

The levers that improve the fortunes of a brand – its awareness among target consumers, their proclivity for it at the right moment – are more complex now because consumers are changing their media habits and the way they find and buy things they want. The big lever you used to pull was called media.

Now, as things move faster and more unpredictably, brands want the tech and the know-how to be closer to home, something they can call on in the moment, without a day rate or delays. In-house.

What makes the difference in a global brand marketing organisation isn’t the ability to pull the trigger on media – it’s the capabilities to think and act at the speed of the digital consumer. Capability – from technical and data know-how to a digital mindset – more than media muscle alone, is what will set leading brands apart in the coming decade.

Marketing, then, is moving from media to capability as its focus.

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Keep on moving

Maybe we need to stop thinking of change as something that needs to be managed, an awkward event that comes along every few years and upsets everyone who was getting on just nicely as they were.

But how? I wrote some things about this for CMO.com. Part of the answer lies with data that helps people quickly understand, communicate and display the value of their work:

Reframing and offering data that helps our people explain their value and their status within the organisation could act as an antidote to less useful ways of expressing status—presenteeism (“I am here all the time and super busy”) and attachment to a particular job title or role that may not be useful after the next wave of change hits.

In Cal Newport’s Deep Work, he describes how email and other always-on busy-work can act as a replacement for really valuable work in organisations where the value of what someone does is hard to measure or express:

Busyness as Proxy for Productivity: In the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable in their jobs, many knowledge workers turn back toward an industrial indicator of productivity: doing lots of stuff in a visible manner. This mind-set provides another explanation for the popularity of many depth-destroying behaviours. If you send and answer e-mails at all hours, if you schedule and attend meetings constantly, if you weigh in on instant message systems like Hall within seconds when someone poses a new question, or if you roam your open office bouncing ideas off all whom you encounter—all of these behaviours make you seem busy in a public manner. If you’re using busyness as a proxy for productivity, then these behaviours can seem crucial for convincing yourself and others that you’re doing your job well.?

Could it be that the mystery of the productivity gap – the lag between companies investing in technology and workers’ output increasing – can be explained by email and messaging apps allowing appear-to-be-busy-work while simultaneously tempting us with distractions and ludic loops in social media and games that erode our ability to do the work that would really make us happy and our organisations more successful? Whilst it is too simple to think solely in these terms, there would seem to be a case for further investigation.

With productivity seeming to be an economic and management mystery, perhaps using data to measure value to the individual and the value that the individual creates would help change behaviours. Not to spot where shirking – accidental or otherwise – is happening, but to inspire and reward behaviours that are more useful.