A Bias for Action

Sam Robinson was an early mentor in my career. Currently tearing it up as the CEO at Sam Villa, this is a man who has forgotten more about business (and particularly retail) than I will ever know.

I met Sam when I was running the marketing for the retail division of Provo Craft. The company had just completed its first $100 million year and was taking private equity money from a local PE firm. With the money came a lot of changes. Changes in management, policy, goals and culture. Sam was brought in as the new head of the retail division and became my new boss.

One of the things Sam was great at, was navigating change with repeatable sayings. He consistently preached that, as a department, we would exhibit a “bias for action.”

Now the concept of action bias made its way into the American lexicon as a result of several psychological studies, including examining soccer goalies. The keepers displayed action bias by lunging one way or the other when their best bet for defending the goal was actually to stay put. In these studies, action bias reflected detrimental impatience and instability. But despite this lesser-known reference, Sam’s use of the expression was infinitely more useful, practical and positive for us. He wasn’t reading psychology anyway—he was getting stuff done.

In Sam’s parlance, a bias for action was all about execution. No management process represents airtight communication. Nor should it be. Sam understood that the culture should dictate most of the decisions of individual employees, rather than top-down instruction through the chain of command. A culture around a bias for action was his way of instilling an ethos of productivity. If you found yourself at a momentary loss for what to do, just find a way to act. Chances are it will move the company incrementally forward.

This maxim is rooted in the same principle as “Even if you are headed in the right direction, you’ll get run over if you just sit there,” “A rolling stone gathers no moss,” and “Execute, execute, execute.” It was GTD at the most elementary level.

Since that time, I have tried to incorporate the principle of action into my habits (along with several other nuggets of wisdom I owe to Sam), and been much better off for it.

Essential Branding

A lot of advice that gets doled out is idealistic.

That’s okay. Idealism gives us something to strive for.

Sometimes, however, the practical application gets lost in the comparison; we end up saying wouldn’t it be nice to have those ideal circumstances, instead of the ones we are facing.

That’s what it was like for me. I was recruited by a group of friends and partners to head up the marketing for their startup. It wasn’t really their startup. It was a company founded by others and they had essentially acquired it in distress. “Startup” makes it sound like it was squeaky clean, a blank slate, the perfect untarnished foundation upon which to build a brand.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

We weren’t starting with a clean slate. We had history—a string of business decisions that had led us to a current reality where the company had to either change or die.

It was a messy pile of baggage. The company needed consistency. It had flux. It needed clarity in its message. It had confusion.

For one thing, it needed unity around the product. It had a pile of seemingly unrelated features. It needed certainty around its purpose. It had competing visions. It needed focus. It had what I call magpie syndromedecision-makers were seduced by the allure of the next shiny new thing.

Most of all, the customer needed to be able to trust us.

In the beginning, they couldn’t.

We were not bereft of advantages. We had a knot of skilled, smart and capable people. We needed to focus those resources to reforge our brand, and it wasn’t going to be easy. At the root of it all, we needed to change our decision-making behavior in order to execute in a consistent manner.

Enter the irony of constraints. Enslaved by the decisions of the past, our only hope of freeing ourselves and giving the company its wings lay in imposing constraints on ourselves. (An excellent read on this principle is Presentation Zen Design by Garr Reynolds.)

I believed that this could be led by marketing.

If we could focus one area of the company on relentless and consistent execution, the results would encourage others to follow suit and we could establish a sense of ourselves that others would rally behind.

I believed that the root of our erratic past was a lack of identity. Not identity in the sense of our logo or colors, but identity in the sense of our culture. What were our values and how did they translate into what we were all about? What purpose did we serve?

To start we needed to establish the constraints within which we would discipline ourselves to act. They needed to be loose enough that (as one department) we weren’t strangling the rest of the company, but firm enough that we were imposing discipline on ourselves and taking clear steps, however small, away from the chaos of the past.

In the beginning, we just needed something that would act like bumpers in our bowling lane. If we treated each product iteration or marketing campaign as its own MVP, we needed a consistent standard for what was acceptable.

Simple as it was, our standard became simply, It has to be cool, and not suck.

In the terms of Scott Bedbury’s New Brand World, this became the motto that helped us make the commitment and sacrifice needed to put down the roots of our brand.

If it was cool, we were interested. If it sucked, we said no.

It has to be cool and not suck, became the emblem of our company culture. As simple and seemingly subjective as this motto was, it gave us what we needed to combat both the total perfectionism and “anything goes” behaviors of the past.

It was our version of Mark Zuckerburg’s “Done is better than perfect,” but tempered with a standard that we didn’t accept the assumption that done was any good if it was crap.

Culture drives consistency in decision-making, which in our case caused a chain reaction that helped solidify the company.

We clarified our business plan, unified the product, executed a consistent integrated marketing strategy across all channels, developed consistent and clear messaging, created simple branding and style guides, and harmonized web and product design with our traditional marketing and communications efforts.

The story is still being written. It would be a gross oversimplification to say that this decision solved all of our problems for us.

But it did provide the lodestone we needed to extract ourselves from the morass of the company’s past sins. It did guide us to build a solid brand and help define our culture. And, in the end, we had a company that was definitely cool—and didn’t suck.

This post first appeared on Medium.

Leadership Secrets for the Rest of Us

I had lunch the other day with my friend, Ty Kiisel. Ty is one of the best marketing minds around. He and I get together every so often to talk shop, which is to say we compare notes and experiences. We typically talk management strategies, marketing best practices and case studies.

As we spoke about management, the successes and failures we see around us, and the principles that underpin these examples, he introduced me to Dick Cross. Dick is a turnaround pro based in Boston, who has written a couple of books (also see this Forbes article on 9 Crippling Mistakes CEOs Make).

Cross is focused primarily on the attributes that make or break a great CEO. Neither Ty nor I are currently operating in the role of a CEO, so I was interested in how these ideas might apply to managers of smaller departments and teams. I’ve been fortunate to work with some great CEOs, here are some highlight topics from the article: Ignoring the Importance of Company Culture, Being too Afraid, and You are Too Smart to Learn from Anyone Else. I think these are easy to apply to the various leadership roles downstream from the CEO.

Culture

I’m a big fan of creating culture. As Brian Chesky, CEO of Airbnb suggests in his latest post on Medium (profanity warning), culture creates productivity and efficiency. Polysyllabic words that mean, it helps you get more of the right stuff done. The culture communicates values intuitively, and so it becomes subliminal training for your employees. Done right, your culture allows people to act autonomously and still be in harmony with the goals and mission of the company. How cool is that? No instructions. No meetings. No detailed project management process. Just people who get it and move the company forward on their own. That’s the power of culture. I can’t resist pulling this excerpt from the Brian Chesky article above:

The stronger the culture, the less corporate process a company needs. When the culture is strong, you can trust everyone to do the right thing. People can be independent and autonomous. They can be entrepreneurial. And if we have a company that is entrepreneurial in spirit, we will be able to take our next “(wo)man on the moon” leap. Ever notice how families or tribes don’t require much process? That is because there is such a strong trust and culture that it supersedes any process. In organizations (or even in a society) where culture is weak, you need an abundance of heavy, precise rules and processes.

Lesson: command-and-control, micromanaging, and dictatorial-style leadership are anachronisms left over from a previous generation and NOT the most efficient or effective methods for motivating people to use their initiative and ingenuity to make good decisions.

Fear

How about being afraid?Ty told me that during one of their interviews, the comment was made that many CEOs are unnecessarily afraid that they will be “found out.” That someone will realize that the emperor has no clothes. That people around them will discover that they don’t know everything about everything. As a result of that fear, they can be prone to do wacky and ultimately ineffective things trying to prove to everyone that they know it all. This undermines their effectiveness.

A colleague, Steve Fulling recently shared this article with me entitled The Trap You Set For Yourself. It makes the case that fear is crippling. You can’t be effective in creating value for your company and the people around you, if your actions are motivated by fear. If you want to be happy and authentic, you must act on what you think is right without fear.

Hubris

Among the attributes of great leaders as represented by Cross and others (think Good to Great by Jim Collins) are humility, channeling ego away from themselves, building up others, etc. A reason Cross’s book works, is because leaders need great lieutenants more than they need to be great at everything themselves. Even a modest-sized company is too big for one person to have all the skills and specialization needed to operate every necessary function within it. Great leaders provide vision, then let their operators execute. They are concerned with the success of the enterprise above that of themselves. It’s an altruism that in the end raises them.

Enigma of the Creative

alberssquareI recently spoke with a colleague about a project we were working on together. He made the comment, “nobody gives a [bleep] about the design.” This statement without context could mean any number of things, but it triggered something and got me thinking. I was forced to consider that perhaps every specialization in the company includes domain knowledge that is invisible and/or unintelligible to others.

In what I expect will be a noble, but mostly unsuccessful attempt to move the needle in terms of cross-departmental appreciation and understanding, I added a short essay on design to my next report to the my peers on the senior management team.

Enigma of the Creative

Design is a powerful manipulation of human beings. What we call a first impression happens in less than 50 milliseconds, is unconscious, and occurs primarily in the reptilian or limbic brain—so called because it is considered evolutionarily primitive, preverbal and instinctual (see Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow by Daniel Kahneman). These first impressions are not interdicted by the higher, more evolved mammalian brain. In other words, our higher brain functions may dictate what we choose to do about our first impressions, but they cannot prevent the impression from occurring! 

What gets communicated in that 50 ms window? A gestalt including professionalism, confidence, esteem, comfort and polish, all of which directly impact subsequent conversion goals (read sign ups and purchases). At its heart, Design is about channeling the uncontrollable responses in the human brain in favor of the company. These impressions are driven by nuance. You may ask, what is the difference between so-so design and great design? If customers (i.e., website viewers) responses to a website fall into a normal distribution (bell curve), the game is often won or lost in the margins, the tails, the extra sigma (standard deviation from the mean). Think Moneyball.

Typography series - 01 - Type anatomy

How do they do it? What lies in the armories of designers? The most relevant tool a designer has is his or her brain. Making something feel good requires the designer to employ expertise in color theory (would love to explore Interaction of Color by Bauhaus alumnus and Yale fellow Josef Albers), typography, hierarchy, context, proportion, balance, rhythm, C.R.A.P. (contrast, repetition, alignment, proximity), line, value, shape, forms, space, texture, movement, emphasis, pattern, proportion, unity, theme, brand and communication for starters.

Designers are typically people who naturally perceive and effectively replicate the aspects of a visual image that tug on the reptilian brain. It’s taste in everyday parlance; and taste-level is almost impossible to teach if God didn’t give you a portion at birth. Among designers, the competition for those margins is fierce and science takes over beyond gut feel. Enter the A/B test. Anyone can do an A/B test, the real trick is coming up with what to test. Again, you need a creative thinker to push the margins.

In the end, Design is a powerful psychological tool in the arsenal of any company and we misunderstand it at our peril.

I’m not a blogger

I’m not. It’s an uncomfortable fact for both of us, that this copy really exists for me, not you. I’m not trying to be a jerk about this; I just want to set your expectations right from the outset.

I used to feel beholden to my blog (not particularly often as you can tell by my blogging frequency), like a diary with a daily quotient that had to be met, but not anymore. I write here when I feel like it and frankly when I have the time. Forgive my selfishness. It’s not that I don’t care about you (gentle reader), it’s that I don’t think catering to you will make this any more interesting. Maybe it’s tough love. I would like to pretend that I am independent and cavalier enough that I just don’t give a flip, but that isn’t true. I want to be liked as much as the next human. But it isn’t very likable to go around trying to be liked. In the end, you just have to do your thing and if it resonates with someone else, that’s awesome. If not, no biggie there either.

Here’s the thing, I think there are a bunch of you writers out there in the same boat.

Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE writing. I write every day (just not here).

I recently articulated something similar to myself. In my professional circles, I have many relationships that I value. But I don’t value any of them enough to forgo making my contribution in the way I believe is best. One of the things that has been good for me in my career that a long time ago, I was out of work for a substantial amount of time. Months and not years, if you are curious. After going through that, I was boldened. Since that time I have never been afraid of being fired. I don’t kowtow to anyone or suffer manipulation in my partnerships or work roles as a result of fear of being fired. This has allowed me to do MUCH better work and make a stronger contribution in all of my roles since.

The new thing that happened is that I realized that I was committed enough to doing what I believed to be right that I was not only happy to risk being fired, but happy to risk relationships that couldn’t withstand me working at my best. As I stated in an interview recently, I don’t get out of bed in the morning unless it is to try to change the world. I’m not saying I hit that goal all the time… or even very often if I think about it. But I’m striving for it every single day.

Commitments have a cost. Commitments mean you cannot accommodate everybody. Some things have to be sacrificed if you want to make commitments. And I’m at peace with those sacrifices. I’m good with it. I’m not going to fret, or stress… I’m just going to keep getting up everyday hoping to change the world.

The Evolution of Education

The face of education is changing. This has been a theme for me over the past few years.

What I think most authors on this subject are missing is that this shift is driven by a powerful confluence of factors, and not merely a comment on the advance of technology or the peculiar study habits of Millennials.

Sure the Internet has enabled the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) trend and is facilitating a delivery channel for education. But the velocity with which MOOCs are penetrating the market is driven by the broken economics of traditional education.

Students are fed up with a product that no longer serves them. Employers are giving less credence to degrees and degree holders.    A recent Money Magazine article stated that nearly 30% of students with a much less expensive Associate’s Degree are out-earning those with Bachelor’s Degrees. The costs of education are going up (in a peculiar break from standard supply and demand economics, education pricing has soared through the recession which began in 2008). New students are justifiably questioning whether an education is worth the cost. College placement rates are dismal and the actual information conveyed in many university courses is available online and on-demand for free. Young people today often view education as a problem-solution situation. I need to know something, ergo. I look it up online. Why would I waste my time in school?

Consider what the product of an education is. Knowledge or information about a subject. A certificate authorized by a body of accreditation that tells everyone you really know what you are doing. An opportunity to network with other students. An opportunity to get involved in academia, which I define as doing research and working on projects that have not yet proven to be marketable.

Now ask yourself how many of these objectives can just as easily be obtained via CourseraEdX, Udacity, UdemySkillshare, or the Khan Academy with no unbankruptable student loan debt.

In the name of full disclosure, I am not unbiased since I work as an entrepreneur and consultant for a couple of startup companies and as an adjunct professor in the Finance department at the University of Utah.

Education Bubble Part 2

More of this is hitting the news. This video gives more details of the education bubble. To me the big question is this, is the free market being prevented from equalizing the student loan debt situation because student loans are not bankruptable? If bankruptcy is the great “do-over” allowing citizens to recover from untenable financial situations and return to society in a productive role, then are we just crippling students by not allowing them to participate in this mechanism available to the rest of society? Maybe the OWS crowd wouldn’t be so angry if they had the ability to recover from the fateful decision of picking a major with no economic prospects. In any case, I think there is a reasonable argument to be made that if we are willing to forgive debt to countries in Africa, we ought to consider giving at least the bakruptcy option (which is not without consequences) to our own young people.

 

The Education Bubble

I’ve been talking about this for about 3 years. I’m glad somebody finally picked it up. The AP reported on a financial bubble in education last week. There have been a slough of stories percolating about this, such as Generation Jobless: Is An Ivy League Diploma Worth It?, and some spinoffs of ridiculous comments made by unemployed Occupy Wall Street lemmings, like What’s Your Kid Getting From College? 

There are also some debates about what constitutes a REAL economic bubble, as if anyone caught up in it cares about the precise definition of the hyperbolic media parlance. Personally, I’m more interested in the similarities of the big bubbles, Dot.com, real estate, and now education. In all three cases, it appears that a disconnect arose between price and value. Specifically, the price inflated way beyond the intrinsic value of the underlying asset. With the Dot.coms there was a belief that traditional valuation methods based on old-fashioned metrics like assets or earnings were passe and companies could be valued for cyberspace intangibles like website visitors or stickiness. With the real estate bubble home prices were artificially inflated due to massive pull-through demand generated by collateralized mortgage obligations, fueled by investor cash that had fled the market in the Dot.com crash looking for something “safer” that financiers didn’t understand… real estate.

So, how does education—and more particularly student loan debt—look like these previous bubbles? Well for starters, the price and the underlying value are way out of whack. Tuitions have escalated around the country in the midst of the financial crisis, its ensuing recession and remaining aftermath. How is that possible? Do people have more money to spend on education? No. Has the value of education gone up? No. In fact, the opposite is true. New graduates are now competing with candidates that have both degrees and experience, but who now find themselves part of the massive ranks of unemployed Americans vying for available positions.

Any hope that this climate might change soon dwindles in the face of politicians like Harry Reid who showed such a profound misunderstanding of economics that he was recently quoted as saying millionaire job creators are like unicorns, they don’t exist. Seriously, what an out of touch tool.

Despite any political despair, the question remains, why would tuitions rise in the face of declining economic operators? Demand is down, supply is up, and yet the price climbs. This simple analysis betrays the disconnect and the evidence of a bubble.

Disconnects like this also alert us to other symptoms of a problem. If the economics are breaking down, then too is the value this education is providing to society. But in the face of this evidence, the powers that be continue to raise the cost of traditional education and use their influence to prevent new entrants into the market. I am not about to prognosticate about how this bubble will resolve itself. One thing preventing it from popping is the un-bankruptability of student loan debt. However, depending on election results this coming year, someone may get wise to the idea that if we are going to forgive debts we would be just as well to forgive them to our citizens as to developing nations in Africa or Asia. And when we do, education will rapidly return to its fair-valued price. In other words… pop.

 

 

 

The Punctuated Equilibrium of Leadership

Many of us have worked for someone and thought, I could do his job. What’s so great about that person? (These thoughts are probably more prevalent when that person is our boss and is driving us crazy.) I’m not trying to answer every question about how some people work their way into leadership positions. What I am going to do is suggest some thoughts about why a person, who still only has 24 hours in a day, who still has only one FTE of output, and who puts their pant on one leg at a time just like everybody else, might be able to create disproportionate value for a company.

I recently read Linchpin: Are You Indespensable? by Seth Godin. (I also recently gave this book a negative review on my LinkedIn reading list and now I’m quoting it, go figure.) On page 51 (of the hardcover first edition), he made a comment about Richard Branson as follows:

You could do Richard Branson’s job.

Most of the time, anyway.

… You could certainly do most of what he does, perhaps better than he does it. Except for what he does for about five minutes a day. In those five minutes, he creates billions of dollars’ worth of value every few years, and neither you nor I would have a prayer of doing what he does.

Now, if you are interested in what Godin says Branson does in those five minutes, you can read the book. What interested me is this idea that a leader was able to create that kind of leverage. That there really might be a quality time component to leadership, that made the economy of a company work, despite an ostensibly disproportionate amount of control and pay residing in one individual.

I have known CEOs who felt that the key to their leadership was to outwork, outsmart, and outperform everybody in the company in every function. This seems obviously foolish, but in their desire to lead by example, they view their company like a wolf pack where their position at the top is only secure as long as they can unseat any challenger to their superiority. If a leader’s true value is not created by putting in more hours than anybody else—hours are finite after all—but, instead leveraging a few critical moments of judgement, decision-making, insight, or charisma, then the economy of leadership within a company make sense.

I titled this post, The Punctuated Equilibrium of Leadership, because this narrow opportunity to exercise leadership that would be leveraged across other less-critical moments, reminded me of Stephen J. Gould‘s concept of punctuated equilibrium in evolutionary biology (something that opens up an extremely wide field of potential common ground with scientists who are also men of faith). This is the idea that things move along for a time with very little change, and that these times of relative equilibrium are punctuated by times of rapid change.

In support of this idea, I recently read the latest Jim Collins book, Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck—Why Some Thrive Despite Them All, which is a follow up to Good to Great and How the Mighty Fall. On page 120, he writes:

Not all time in life is equal. Life serves up some moments that count much more than other moments…. We will all face moments when the quality of our performance matters much more than other moments, moments that we can sieze or squander…. [We can] respond to unequal times with unequal intensity, when it matters most.

Having spent a few years of my career as a CEO, this is hyper-relevant to me as I strive to be equal to the critical moments that I will inevitably arise in the future of my company. But I think it has a broader application than that. It seems to me that whatever the endeavor, if we want to achieve our life’s goals, we need to dedicate ourselves to being prepared to be equal to the critical moments that present themselves. We can abdicate this quality on behalf of our company, if we aren’t the CEO—but we can’t abdicate it in our lives. There isn’t anyone else who is more invested in our success as individuals. In effect, we are all the CEOs of our own lives, and it isn’t a job we can be fired from, resign from, or otherwise give up to others. As Collins says, not all time in life is equal. We have time during the equilibrium to prepare to make the critical choices when they come.