Monday, March 12, 2012

Audiobooks 2.0: Listening at double speed and beyond

I'm a huge fan of audiobooks, and I listen to them almost exclusively in the car. I currently commute around 60-70 minutes a day total, and instead of being frustrated by traffic, I often arrive at work or home excited and invigorated by a new idea that I picked up in my classroom on wheels. However, one thing that I do that often surprises people is that I listen to nearly all my audiobooks at double speed or faster. Fortunately (or perhaps as a consequence), I commute alone!

The San Jose public library system has a huge selection of audio books available for download in MP3 and WMA format, as well as a number of books on CD that can be ripped to MP3, and I have recently begun to purchase more books from now that I am not completed blocked by their DRM. I use my Android phone as my portable media center, but I was turned on to the idea of high-speed listening by an iPhone user because Apple has variable-speed playback built in. I use an Android app called Astro Player Nova (the paid version, although they have a free version that also does speedups) that allows me to increase (or decrease) the playback speed, while providing pitch correction so the speaker doesn't sound like a chipmunk. Most audiobooks are recorded at a comfortable speaking pace (~150 words per minute),  but most people are able to easily process spoken language at at least 2 times that rate. It is a little daunting at first, but I started out at 25% faster, then gradually increased it until I now start most books at double speed and move up or down according to the book. Although in theory I can probably go even faster, I find that the software begins to clip words together. Yes, I know, blaming the software, not the "wetware"... At that rate, I enjoy a new (unabridged) book nearly every week, and I also find that the faster pace keeps me more alert.

Prior to getting a smartphone, I used a rather cumbersome pipeline (tools glued together with perl) that would convert CDs or MP3s into WAV files, then run these through mplayer to do the speedup, resize them into 2 minute chunks for easier indexing (my old CD player would only start at the beginning of the song, not exactly where I was when the engine stopped), and then finally re-encoding them as MP3s before burning them onto CDs for playback in my CD player. Variable speed playback of audiobooks was actually the deciding factor that pushed me over the edge to a smartphone! DRM protection on the audiobooks is still a nuisance for both WMA files and files, but tunebite helps.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success by Matthew Syed

In Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success, author and table tennis Olympian Matthew Syed explores the role of innate ability (talent) vs. practice, and strongly promotes a practice-based approach to mastery. Although largely based on his experience in athletics, as well as research in athletics, art and music, the core principles of a "growth mindset" have many applications outside of these fields.

The key idea of Bounce is that effort and directed, challenging practice matter far more than natural ability in most pursuits, and that behind the story of many of child prodigies is a reality of hard work and dedication to practice far greater than others of a similar age. Mastery in a subject is usually not achieved without roughly 10,000 hours of directed practice (the 10,000 hour "rule"). This is often around 10 years of effort, given that it is difficult to consistently do more than 20 hours of really focused practice per week, 1000 per year. Many young stars in various fields, from Mozart to Picasso and the Williams sisters, also took approximately 10 years of training to begin to reach their peak performance despite being significantly ahead of their peers at a young age. Of particular note is that merely doing something for 10,000 hours doesn't result in mastery (for example, driving for 10,000 hours doesn't make you an expert driver), but instead mastery comes from targeted practice that stretches your limits. Top performers find techniques that continuously push them beyond their comfort zone, challenging themselves more relative to their own abilities than their less successful competitors. For example, top figure skaters don't only try harder jumps, but consistently try jumps that are farther beyond their current capabilities, and as a direct result, they also fall more during practice. MMA legend Fedor Emelianenko expressed this idea well after a significant loss: "The one who doesn't fall, doesn't stand up"

Starting with his own story as a child table tennis prodigy, Syed explains how his success could be seen as a natural result of his innate ability revealed at a young age and leading to his rise to the pinnacle of British table tennis. However, he then points out the multiple environmental factors that truly contributed, including having a full-sized table as a child, an older brother who was a motivated training partner which resulted in hours of practice against a strong opponent, which led in turn to early successes against his peergroup, and then to better coaching, including early work with a star coach in the local school district, and how these opportunities built in a reinforcing cycle. He then notes that a hugely disproportionate number of England's table tennis stars came from one single street, his street.

Effort-based praise and rewards (instead of talent-based recognition) lead to a culture of achievement, and increased resilience to setbacks: They teach that success shouldn't come easily because of your talent, but rather is obtained through consistent effort and a willingness to try, learn, refine, practice and improve. Organizational cultures that reward talent can even be destructive: Because innate ability can't be earned or improved, there is a much greater temptation to cheat when talent is the measure of success. Syed points to Enron as an extremely talent-oriented culture (talent was valued far more than knowledge), and points to the need to appear smart as one of the key reasons why people felt compelled to hide their failures at ever-greater scales. Embracing failure, taking on difficult challenges and insisting on hard work are key ingredients to a "growth" culture.

I found two of the studies cited in Bounce to be particularly worthwhile. The first is somewhat common in the "growth mindset" literature, about children who were praised on for their effort on a test versus children who were praised for their intelligence (talent). The children praised for effort were more willing to take additional, harder tests, and in fact did better, while the "talent praise" children attempted to retain their intelligent label by avoiding more difficult opportunities. In the other study, it was demonstrated that there is a transference effect to success. Students who read an article about a successful mathematician immediately before taking a test did better when the article was modified so that the mathematician was born on the same day as the test-taker. This placebo effect is discussed in several other examples, but I found it quite surprising.

Bounce also describes the experiences of László Polgár, the father of three chess superstars who set out on a publicized, real-world experiment to demonstrate that he could raise children to become chess champions despite having no chess aptitude himself, and literally recruited a wife to help him. His quest to prove  that "geniuses are made, not born" is fascinating. Although the success of his experiment was astonishing (Judit Polgar is considered to be the best female chess player ever, another is a grand master, and the third is an international master), the very fact that all three sisters were so good has given his critics an opportunity to point to a genetic basis for their success.

Syed also writes about the importance of making some part of what you are doing consistent enough so that you have an adequate mechanism for identifying problems and isolating changes. This is a  common idea for trouble-shooting:  isolate one factor and see how changes to that factor impact the rest of the system, but I had not given it too much thought in the context of a tennis swing. In his example, his coach changed his swing so that it was uniform for all types of strokes. Although this was a difficult adjustment, once completed he could easily diagnose problems and make changes and improvements, leading to much more rapid progress.

One of the most unique concepts in the book is the idea of "doublethink". Doublethink (as coined by George Orwell) is keeping two incompatible ideas in mind at once. Top performers need to be able to make realistic assessments to choose a course of action, accurately predicting  the risk of failure from available options, but, once the decision as been made, to execute the action with the confidence that failure is impossible. Similarly, after a loss, top competitors typically go through a cycle of selective focus or even denial during which they deal with the failure by seeing only the good parts. Later, however, during practice, they need to fully analyze and understand the root problems in order to correct them. Finally, at the next competition, they need to once again banish all thoughts of failure and perform with confidence.

Related to this idea of performance doublethink was an exploration of the athletic "choke" phenomenon, when all training breaks down and the performer completely falls apart. Syed explains that through extended practice, many parts of an activity become unconscious-- muscle memory that allows the athlete to focus on a completely different set of problems. For example, a tennis player can think about what his opponent is doing rather than how he needs to move his feet and swing his arm to connect with the ball. However, when "choking", his concentration becomes so disrupted that the athlete begins to focus on the unconscious actions and attempts to perform them consciously. Unfortunately this is literally like attempting to re-learn the techniques in the middle of the match, analyzing and breaking a complicated motion into the hundreds of small pieces that make up the whole. Pressure and loss of confidence can bring on the choke, and a partial remedy is to try to focus on other things and re-establish the unconscious rhythm. Top athletes need to play "the most important game of their life as if it didn't matter".

Bounce also mentions situational blindness: We focus only on a tiny fraction of the available information that our senses present. This topic is discussed in much greater detail in The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us,  a great book which he also mentions.  The famous invisible-gorilla experiment demonstrates how we can ignore something obvious right in front of us while focused on something else. In a much more chilling account of an airplane crash, repeated, cockpit recordings demonstrated that clearly audible altitude warnings were ignored while the pilot and crew focused on troubleshooting a warning light until it was too late to avert the crash.

Near the end of the book, Bounce challenges one of the most prevalent athletic stereotypes: black sprinters and distance runners are better than white ones. Only black sprinters have run sub-10 second 100 meters, the vast majority of recent Olympic 100m finalists are black, and Kenyans have done spectacularly well in the distance events. However, digging deeper, he points out that, for sprinters, American and Jamaican sprinters are disproportionately represented, and that the majority of top Kenyan runners come from a tiny region, roughly within a 60 mile radius in Kenya. So rather than being general racial characteristics, the successes are highly specific to a tiny subset of the population. A brief exploration of genetic diversity ensues, the highlight of which is that all ethnicities contain a very large percentage of the total genetic variation, far more within a group than across groups. For more information on this topic, see the wikipedia article:

In summary, Bounce is an inspiring look at the benefits of the growth mindset versus the talent mindset, with a good mix of personal anecdotes and scientific research. I recommend it with 4 stars, and enjoyed the unabridged audiobook version from

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? By Seth Godin

In Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?, author Seth Godin assembles a surprisingly large collection of ideas, tips, strategies and anecdotes about becoming a linchpin, the person that an organization can't do without. Although many of his examples are targeted at the business environment, Linchpin is also about life strategies that can be applied to nearly any undertaking. The book is filled with so many thought-provoking ideas, many almost at the level of one-liners, that it would not be surprising to have separate readers come away with significantly different impressions. I will be highlighting the points that I found most interesting, rather than giving a thorough summary.

My principle takeaway from Linchpin is that creative, non-linear results delivered consistently and with humanity is the secret to becoming indispensable. Godin calls linchpins "artists", and points to three critical characteristics:

1. They give a gift. Some exceptional part of what they do is above and beyond what they expect in return.
2. They produce results that cause change in the world around them.
3. They ship. They prepare their work, but then share/publish/give it so that other people can use/appreciate/consume/benefit from it.

Godin explains that your work as an artist is to simply ship things that make change. Everything else is unimportant.
Linchpin begins with a relatively pessimistic assessment of the state of the business environment. Godin argues that many of our business practices originate in the assembly-line management style that emerged from the industrial revolution, when one of the primary goals was to break down production into a series of simple, largely repeatable tasks that could be performed by mostly interchangeable workers with specific but limited training. An employee's value to the business was confined to the income they generated minus the wage they were paid. By mechanizing the steps, businesses could achieve economy of scale and the emphasis was on decreasing the cost of labor by simplifying the requirements for any particular task. Today, even though there are still companies that are succeeding with this type of business model, there are a very limited number of them in each industry, and they are very price and cost-sensitive. The business ecosystem supports a variety of other approaches, however, and many other businesses succeed by providing better service, more flexibility, creativity and competing on other factors other than price. As he points out, retail businesses don't try to compete with Walmart on price, that battle is largely over. Instead, businesses that depend on any of those other non-price factors need employees who show superior initiative, creativity and/or people skills. Unfortunately, he argues, our education system is still oriented to producing factory workers who are able to follow instructions, master a body of existing knowledge, work hard at clearly defined tasks, and expect that over time, their diligence, hard work and obedience will be rewarded. The harsh reality is that because of a variety of factors from globalization to the continued factory mindset, these types of system-educated workers are more likely to become low-cost, outsourceable cogs than someone highly in demand. For example, is a transcription service that uses Amazon's mechanical turk to break audio recordings into small chunks that are transcribed by a fleet of low-cost typists distributed all over the world, thereby providing quality transcriptions at a fraction of the cost (and employee wages) of a traditional service. However, after painting a pretty grim picture of the existing environment, Godin begins to point to a number of opportunities to adapt and thrive within this difficult ecosystem. One of the points is that knowledge work has transformed the balance of power from the factory owner to the factory worker. Previously, the factory required a huge capital investment, and it was far easier for a factory owner to replace a worker than it was for the worker to create a new factory where his skills could be applied. However, with knowledge work, the "factory" is often the mind, or the mind + a computer, and so it is now easy for the worker to "build their own factory". 

The concept of shipping is critical to the linchpin mentality. Part of the discipline (and the point) of creativity is sharing. As you force yourself to ship, to finish something and share it with others, you enable the artistic process (both giving and receiving) to happen. Develop the discipline of getting things to a shippable state, and then pull the trigger. Sometimes this can simply involve shipping whatever you have at a fixed cutoff, and making that commitment to yourself and others. For example, Saturday Night Live must ship. That's the point, and it's built into the show. Over time, you will become better at producing higher quality results when you ship. A common fear barrier ("the resistance") is that we don't have a good enough idea, or enough good ideas. Godin argues that it's far more effective to attempt to generate lots of bad ideas, and *ship* them than to obsess about finding the one good idea. With practice, good ideas will emerge from the discipline of preparing bad ideas for release, and bad ideas that ship have an infinitely better chance of creating positive change than good ideas that never get implemented. As an additional strategy, Godin suggests putting aside ideas that don't quickly take shape, where you aren't able to make rapid, concrete progress and complete them. This technique requires some finesse, however, because it's important not to avoid everything that is difficult, while at the same time avoiding the trap of not shipping because it's too hard to get things "ready".

Linchpin takes the bias towards action to a whole new level with the idea that there is only minimal difference between knowing and not knowing when you begin something. Progress has three states: inaction, action, and completion. While this is another idea that requires considerable finesse to be practical, the takeaway is that progress is made by doing, not by waiting until we have everything just right so that we can start with a clear plan.

Godin also devotes considerable attention to describing the importance of the "gift" exchange. As mentioned above, giving is a critical part of being a linchpin. Because of the power of internet communications, there is a new class of people who are not friends but "friendlies". If you spend too much time attempting to market and sell to people you don't know, you are likely to cause strains and your art will suffer. However, if you spend time attempting to give "gifts" to your friends AND friendlies, you will likely see that your circle expands and opens new opportunities. It may turn out that there is no clear economic benefit to giving your gift, but often being true to what you want to do is rewarding itself. 

One of the more surprising ideas in Linchpin is that asking for permission to do something new and risky is largely a cop-out. "I want to do something, but my boss won't let me. Of course she won't, because it means that if it fails, she gets the blame, but if it succeeds, you get the credit." If you believe in something, take the risk to make it happen, accept failure on your own shoulders and be very quick to share the credit if you succeed.

Learn to depersonalize: people tend to have a much easier time not blaming others when events are random or the result of forces we can't really change, like the weather. However, we have little actual ability to change the people around us, and should learn to treat events caused by others just as impersonally.  Switching to "wow, I wonder why that happened" instead of "How dare he!" is the first critical step to being solution oriented. As an example, Richard Branson, when faced with a canceled flight out of the Caribbean, didn't spend time fretting about the problem, but instead went immediately to inquire about a charter flight, and then put up on a board, "flights home, X dollars" and was able to fill the charter and get home on time.

Another technique is "if only". Learn to say to yourself, I could do this "if only". Then address the specific issues. Don't treat this an an excuse, but rather as an empowerment technique that can isolate limiting factors in a specific and actionable way, moving from a blockage to the idea that you could succeed given a few tweaks. Naturally, it helps to identify things that you can control or influence as part of the "if only" condition.

One of the ideas that was most controversial to me was about avoiding thrashing. Per Godin, as a project progresses, it becomes important to limit the number of people who can change the final result. The cycle of see, change. debate, consider, build, see, change is important to have early on, but once the direction has been established, if that sort of change happens closer towards the end, it can delay or sink the entire project. So attempt to have a single person with go/no-go authority, and present them the choice of shipping on time, or accepting/handling lots of late-stage feedback. I tend to agree that it's very easy for lots of late stage changes to create thrashing, but building iteratively with shorter release cycles seems to be a better approach. Perhaps, though, shorter release cycles are really just another way of decreasing the amount of required/available late-stage input.

Another key concept in Linchpin is the idea of "the resistance". The resistance is a general term for the forces of fear, uncertainty, doubt, inertia and overt hostility that conspire to block change. Many times these forces are internal, while another times they are actually external. Godin points to anxiety as an extremely useless part of the resistance. Fear is productive, it warns you away from danger, while anxiety is imagining what could go wrong. He uses the example of a driver who, when spotting flashing lights in the rear view mirror, begins to imagine a traffic stop, misunderstandings, resisting arrest, being jailed and eating prison food. Learn to recognize the signs of the downward spiral of anxiety, and abort it at an early stage. As a personal example, I have found that my tendency to replay arguments in my head, and in particular to imagine the actual dialogue for the "rematch", is a particularly useless cycle. It allows my anger to escalate nearly unchecked against the mental strawman, while the actual conversation with a real person always diverges radically from the first word of the imagined script. I can break the cycle by recognizing the pattern and focusing on the key points of how I feel and what needs to change, not the intricacies of scoring points in an imagined contest of verbal swords. 

I would definitely recommend reading Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?. There are a  multitude of ideas, and you are sure to find a few that will inspire, challenge and provoke you. I listened to the Overdrive unabridged audiobook version from the San Jose Public Library. 

Rating: 4 stars

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies

 Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies is the breakthrough work by Jim Collins and Jerry I. Porras. It is the predecessor to the transformational book Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap... and Others Don't that I read last year. For Built To Last, the authors spent six years analyzing a number of companies that had been in business for at least 50 years, and had managed to achieve spectacular results throughout their lifetime. Each company was paired with a comparison company that was similar in many ways, but which had achieved far less impressive results over a similar lifespan. Focusing on the difference between the 20 companies in the visionary vs. non-visionary set, the authors presented one overarching theme, and a number of supporting ideas. The list of visionary companies included GE, 3M, HP, Nordstroms, Merck, Proctor & Gamble, Citibank, Disney, Boeing, Motorola, Phillip Morris and Marriott.

The key recommendation for the book was to "Create tangible mechanism designed to preserve the core and stimulate progress".

Although these two principles might seem to be in conflict, the authors described a "yin and yang" system of opposing but necessary checks and balances.

The core of a business is the guiding ideology and purpose that can endure over many years and is unaffected by changes in the external environment. Leaders of a business may have started with this core first, or it may have developed over time. However, having a clear but limited set of core values and a supporting ideology was an important characteristic of the visionary companies.
A significant portion of the book was devoted to identifying the core values and ideology.  These values were almost always separate (and at times even at odds) with the necessary requirement of making a profit. They formed the foundation that continued to guide, inspire and focus the company in a volatile environment.

Two questions can be helpful in discovering/uncovering the core values of a company.

1.. What would we still want to do even if the market did not value it. What would we still be doing in 100 years that would be meaningful, even if the mechanics of how we accomplished it had completely changed?

2. If someone offered us a substantial buyout package to close our doors, what reasons would we have to reject the offer and continue? What is our value to the world?

There is no correct answer, but finding the answer for your company will help to define what is unique about it. One surprising finding was that having values appeared to be more important than what the values were. For example, Phillip Morris values individual freedom, responsibility and a strong desire to win, and these values permeated the culture even though the end result of those values was a profitable tobacco company that stands at best on very dubious moral grounds.

There were two primary mechanisms used to preserve the core ideology:

1. Promote home-grown management.

2. Build a cult-like culture.  It's a great place to work for those who buy into the core ideology. Those who don't fit are "ejected like a virus"

One of the more disturbing findings was that visionary companies were often cult-like, providing very concrete mechanisms intended to reinforce the core ideology to a level that went way beyond typical "corporate culture".

Visionary companies:

- Insure a tightness of fit either before hiring through tight screening, or soon after through a clear weeding process
- Create a sense of belonging to something special
- Provide ongoing corporate training programs with ideological as well as practical content,  teaching values, norms, history and tradition
- Encourage socialization within the organization on and off the job
- Promote from within, and explicitly link compensation and/or advancement policies to following the corporate ideology
- hire young, and indoctrinate
- Create and highlight a corporate mythology of heroes and examples
- Utilize unique terminology that reinforces the sense of belonging to an elite group
- Encourage corporate songs, pledges, affirmations or cheers that reinforce psychological commitment
- Provide awards and recognition for those who show great effort consistent with the ideology, as well as punishments
- Emphasize corporate heritage and values in written and verbal communications

Stimulating progress was similarly distilled down to a few mechanisms:

1. Set Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals (BHAGs)

BHAGs must be simple to understand, and pack an emotional punch. They are not boring missions statements, but concrete, easily stated goals that are so inspiring that they could persist even without the initial leader. They must be achievable, but only barely. The company must stretch to achieve them, and leaders must also be aware that once one is successfully completed, complacency can set it without another large goal. BHAGs must also remain in line with the core ideology.

2. Try lots of experiments, keeping what works and discarding the rest.

Mistakes and failures are a critical part of creation and success. Learn to fail faster, and to not repeat the same mistakes. Also, mistakes in execution are completely different from transgressions against the core values of the company, which are not tolerable.

Allow everyone to exercise a degree of autonomy. From their experiments will come progress. Also allow them to be persistent. Let them work through an idea. Companies that grant substantial operational autonomy have as a prerequisite a set of clear and guiding principles, a mission and purpose. For example, Nordstroms provided a one-page employees manual that boiled down to use your best judgment to make the customer happy. Once the core values have been clarified to provide a guiding framework and direction, then autonomy frees up the employees to move forward with those larger objects as they see fit.

3. Good enough never is. Practice continuous self improvement and set up mechanisms to guard against complacency.

Visionary companies drove themselves harder than the comparison companies. They build "mechanisms of discontent" to "obliterate complacency"  and bring about change and improvement from within still keeping true the core values.

Leaders a visionary companies were "clock builders", not "time tellers". They worked to create patterns today that would lay the foundations for success in the future.

Life in a visionary company is not supposed to be easy, in fact doing well is not even an end goal. Rather, the goal is to always do better tomorrow than you did today.

Mechanism examples:

  • Disney didn't leave ideology up to chance. It created Disney University and required all employees to attend classes on Disney history and traditions.
  • HP instituted a promote-from-within policy, and encorporated values from the "HP Way" into the annual review process, making it very difficult for anyone to rise through the ranks without demonstrating core values.
  • Marriott instituted rigorous employee screening, employee indoctrination programs, and customer feedback loops.
  • Nordstrom's created a cult of customer service reinforced by rewards and penalties. "Nordis" who treat the customer well become well-paid customer heros, and those who treat the customer poorly are ejected.
  • Motorola committed to six sigma quality, and pursued quality awards.
  • GE created one of the first corporate R&D labs to drive innovation.
  • Boeing made huge commitments to technological innovations, where failure could have killed the company.
  • P&G created an internal competition mechanism that put internal product against product to bring out the best
  • 3M decentralized, initiated a 15% time project, created an internal venture capital fund, and introduced a rule that 25% of each division's annual sales should come from products introduced the last 5 years.

In Built to Last, the authors make a strong case for visionary companies as a social institution driven by a shared ideology and set of goals, and  far beyond merely a profit-making venture.  The high-level strategies that visionary companies use to both preserve the core AND to stimulate progress are:

1. Make the shift from time telling to clock building (focus on building processes for the future, with an emphasis on building an organization that will endure)

2. Reject the tyranny of the OR. Embrace the genius of the AND. By changing the approach, it can be possible to have both quality and  low prices, for example.

3. Have a core ideology and core purpose beyond just making money

4. Have a drive for progress, an "almost primal urge for change and forward movement in all that is not part of the core ideology"

5. Preserve the core and stimulate progress through tangible mechanisms.

Built To Last has earned its place as one of the most thought-proving business books of the last 20 years, and although I found the ideas in Good to Great to be even more applicable and actionable, I would definitely recommend Build to Last as a follow-on.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Trying out Evernote for my note collection

Since 2005, I've been keeping my collection of notes in a text file. It is part journal, part idea book, and part todo list. I tried a few different tools and techniques, but kept coming back to the simplicity and ease of a single file edited in vim. I wrote a few supporting perl scripts to make it a little easier, including a template for new notes, timestamps, backups, and some very basic search capabilities. Despite also using version control (RCS), I managed to delete a significant portion of my notes when upgrading my server at one point, and so the system remained a little fragile. However, when I got a smartphone about a year ago, things changed and I began to need a way to add notes on the go as well as from my computer. I created a simple web application wrapper for my notes file, and then I could post to my notes file from the web. Unfortunately, this system was very much optimized for writing notes, and much less useful for searching or browsing through related items. I was intrigued by the idea of a commonplace book as described in the outstanding book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson. A commonplace book is a cross between a scrapbook, a journal and and idea book, and rose to popularity nearly 500 years ago in Europe. One of the most interesting characteristics of a commonplace book was the cross-indexing of topics to enable me to pick up threads of earlier ideas and combine them together serendipitously. I wanted to have better searching capability than I was willing to write or wire in, and I wanted to be able to combine notes gathered from other sources (like audio transcriptions, documents, images and web pages) into a "common place".

Enter Evernote. I tried their free online note service a few years back when I was looking for an online Getting Things Done (GTD) application, but it didn't stick. However, this time around I was excited to be able to upload audio notes from my phone straight into Evernote, and then transcribe them at my leisure. I record voice memos when listening to audio books on my android phone, or any other time when I have a phone but not a keyboard. I also like Evernote's synchronization feature, which stores notes in the cloud, and also locally on one or more computers/devices, and will automatically synchronize them. (Cloud + local storage is the best sort of backup). What finally tipped me over to giving it another try was the text (XML) import/export format. I'm concerned about vendor lock-in, and wouldn't want to put my notes into a cloud-based application without a clear path to getting my data back out in the event that I was unhappy with the system. So, with a bit of perl hackery, I wrote a script that would parse my existing notes file (350+ notes), massage dates, extract tags, and covert it into an XML document that could be imported directly into Evernote. Evernote has a number of companion products and services made possible through their API, and that is a big plus. The one feature that caught my eye is service that will transcribe up to 30 seconds of audio for free. I'm going to give Evernote another go, and see if I can improve on notes.txt + vim.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Multipliers: How The Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter

In Multipliers: How The Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter, authors Liz Wiseman and Greg McKeown outline 5 key disciplines that differentiate "multipliers" (leaders who increase the intelligence and output of the people around them), and contrast these multipliers with "diminishers" (leaders who, although smart, actually decrease the effective intelligence and productivity of the people they lead).

“We’ve all had experience with two dramatically different types of leaders. The first type drains intelligence, energy, and capability from the people around them and always needs to be the smartest person in the room. These are the idea killers, the energy sappers, the diminishers of talent and commitment. On the other side of the spectrum are leaders who use their intelligence to amplify the smarts and capabilities of the people around them. When these leaders walk into a room, light bulbs go off over people’s heads; ideas flow and problems get solved. These are the leaders who inspire employees to stretch themselves to deliver results that surpass expectations. These are the Multipliers. And the world needs more of them, especially now when leaders are expected to do more with less."

The 5 key disciplines of the multiplier (and their corresponding diminisher behaviors) are:

Multiplier: Talent Magnet: Attracts talented people and utilizes them at their highest point of contribution
Diminisher: Empire Builder: People must report to me to be useful

Become a genius-watcher. Identify the key talents of the people around you, and then connect them with opportunities.

Identify talent, shine the spotlight by recognizing their specific abilities publicly, remove the weeds/nonperformers publicly, and always trying to understand how, why and when a situation will allow someone to be successful. Use the 5 whys to understand the underlying cause of someone's success, build a hyposthesis, confirm that with the person and their peers, and then give them an opportunity.

People do not need to report to you to be able to contribute. Tap into their discretionary effort, and they will be able to give even more.

Tips for building up your genius-watching skills:

Identify the areas of strength of the 8 or 10 people that you associate with most often. Keep track of the things that they do both freely and well. Build some assumptions, and then get feedback from others, and the talented person as well. Find ways to give them opportunities.

Multiplier: Liberator: Creates an intense environment that requires a person's best thinking and work
Diminisher: Tyrant: Creates a tense environment that suppresses creativity and risk-taking

People can only give their best efforts, it can't be taken from them, so give them space to step up. Free them to think, but expect their best effort. The most critical aspect of the liberator is their ability to build an environment with high expectations, but where people feel safe to explore.

Get yourself out of the way. When talking with others, differentiate between "soft" opinions (areas where you don't care much, but are throwing something out, musings, "feel free to disregard this") and "hard" opinions (areas where you have a strong interest in a particular outcome).

Give people the freedom to succeed, or fail (in a way that is not devastating). Publicize your mistakes, making it known that failures are an accepted part of risk-taking and progress. Consider even creating/sharing the "screwup of the week". Expect that failures are necessary for progress. Strive to fail faster, and to never repeat failures by learning from them. Iterate rapidly.

Demand the very best from people. Don't be afraid to ask "Is this your best work?" and then expect them to rework it until they can answer yes.

Multiplier: Challenger: Define an opportunity that allows people to stretch
Diminisher: Know-it-all: Gives directives that showcase their knowledge

People grow stronger with challenges. Your job as a leader is to ask the biggest questions, to reframe and/or refocus problems and beliefs, to identify a starting point, and to generate belief that the end can be achieved. Present a concrete challenge, but don't be afraid to let other people fill in the blanks.

Ask hard questions, shape the path foward, co-create the plan, and build momentum with early but significant successes. You can "helicopter down", going from the 10,000 foot strategic plan to something concrete and practical to demonstrate that what you are asking is only improbable or difficult, not impossible.

Know-it-alls limit the ceiling of their organization, and refocus organizational energy on understanding what the boss wants to hear. Challengers force an organization to expand beyond its previous limits by asking bigger questions than they can answer by themselves.

MultiplierDebate Leader: Together, we can come up with the answers
Diminisher: Decision Maker: I need to have all the answers
  • Attempt to run an entire debate without answering any questions, only answering them.
  • Ask and/or expect evidence for people to back up their views. Make this a habit rather than a way of putting people on the spot to promote a culture of fact-based decisions.
  • Make sure that all voices (particularly the quiet ones) are represented.
  • Use debate to drive decisions, not to block it, and to use it as a thinking process.
  • Encourage people to switch sides and then argue the other side's point. Drive home the point that the debate is to test the validity of ideas.
  • Give space for other people's ideas to flourish. Limit yoursself to a specific amount of contribution in any discussion or meeting (Try the poker chip challenge. 5 chips, each for somewhere between 30 seconds and two minutes of contribution. Use your speaking time wisely). 
  • Don't be afraid to be a decision maker. Consensus decisions are not always necessary, but be sure to clarify how the decisions get made.
Multiplier: Investor: With guidance and coaching, they'll figure it out.
Dimisher: Micro-manager: I need to drive direction through my direct involvement.
They will never figure it out without my direction

Do not take over ownership of problems from your staff. If you need to step up in a meeting to clarify a point or refocus the debate, be sure to "hand the marker back". Step back out of the spotlight, and turn it over to whoever was leading before. Allow people to own the own solutions to their problem; guide and support them, but don't disempower them or teach them to give up or expect to be replaced when things get hard.

After discussing a problem with someone, turn it back to them with a simple statement like "you're smart,   you'll figure it out" or "I'm sure you can take it from here". Allow people to learn from taking the solution all the way, and don't teach them to quit once they've reached a roadblock that requires escalation.

Train people to come with you not only with a problem, but also with a potential solution: take the time to think about what the right answer is. No "awk" without a "f-i-x".

Don't be a "bungee manager", jumping in to save the day when things are exciting, and then disappearing after claiming victory for yourself and/or losing interest.

Other ideas:
  • The 30 day challenge: Take one of each of these areas, and focus on it for 30 days at a time.
  • The question of the year: Pick one question, and pursue the answer for an entire year
Some stats about leaders from the author's research:
  • Leaders rated strong in none of the five areas were in ~34th percentile
  • Leaders rated strong in only one of the areas were in the 64th percentile, while leaders rated strong in two and three of the areas jumped up to 70th and 84th percentile respectively when they had no strong deficiencies. So concentrate on your strongest area, and your weakest one. 
  • Build your strength, and improve your biggest weakness into the average range.
The critical takeaway from the stats is that having/building strength in only a couple areas can clearly differentiate you as a leader.

Key Ideas:

When you identify and tap into someone's talents, you can engage them in a way that can cross organizational boundaries. Inspire, focus and drive debate to a conclusion, don't control it. Learn to create an intense environment, not a tense one, by setting high expectations AND giving autonomy and freedom to fail. Return ownership of solutions to anyone who comes to you with a problem after providing coaching and support.

The authors also offer an online assessment tools that helps to determine where you fall in the multiplier-dimisher spectrum:

Overall, Multipliers: How The Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter is an extremely good book full of clear ideas and case studies to clarify the principles. Their recommendations are so concrete that it makes them easy to put into practice and to test.

Publish Post

Friday, January 27, 2012

The Little Redis Book

Redis is a high-performance in-memory data store, similar to memcached but with a number of advanced features including more datatypes (strings, sets, sorted sets, lists and hashes), a pub/sub mechanism, various options for data replication and persistence and a number of other interesting and useful features. There's a new e-book about it that covers a lot in only a few pages, and is also free. Check it out: The Little Redis Book