Thursday, April 28, 2016

A Guide to Being Wrong

Being right is fun.  Being wrong, not so much.  Is being wrong really that bad?  As with most things, it’s a question of timing.

Jamie inherited a lot of money and is looking to build his future with it.  He loves peanut butter and  believes that people would really love a peanut butter flavored beverage.  He secretly builds up a whole factory to mass produce and distribute this beverage and funds a giant advertising campaign.  On launch, the product flops.  He discovers that he was wrong in a very expensive way.

But what if he had tested his idea as soon as he came up with it?  A simple poll or survey could have told him he was wrong before he spent a dime.  In doing so, he may have learned that what people really want is a peanut butter flavored FROZEN treat.  Opportunity (and tons of money) lost.

It’s common business sense to test ideas early, and yet, the fear of being wrong often prevents people like Jamie from doing this.  Hearing that you are wrong is a form of rejection.  The avoidance of rejection leads to deferred (and more costly) failure.  Even worse, it can lead to an avoidance of any risk taking, stopping innovation in its tracks.  So how do you build the courage to be wrong?  You celebrate it.

Being right feels good because it is a validation of your past.  We’ve been trained by the pop quizzes of our school days to consider everything in life a test.  If you’re wrong, then you fail the test.  You’re a bad person.  But let’s imagine you are always right.  In every conversation you have, and in every debate you engage in, you are always right.  That’s awesome.  The people around you learn a great amount from you and marvel at the vast knowledge you have accumulated in your life.  

But let’s look at it from a different perspective.  The people around you have learned a great amount from you and are becoming more interesting, valuable members of society.  You meanwhile have learned nothing and are not improving.  Now who’s getting the raw end of the deal?  There’s a tradeoff here.  Validating past-you is actively hurting the success of future-you.  But you can control this dynamic.

The next time you meet someone new or engage in conversation with friends and coworkers, pay attention to these two opposing goals.
  1. Demonstrating knowledge, being right, and gaining social status
  2. Being wrong about something and learning something new

Try the second one.  You don’t need to be openly and embarrassingly wrong.  Just approach the conversation as an opportunity to extract knowledge from the people around you.  Ask them about things you don’t know.  If you disagree, listen to the other side and really be open to being wrong.  HOPE to be the one who is wrong.  In the game of learning, being wrong is winning.

But isn’t learning just about gaining information which you didn’t have before?  You can do this without ever being wrong, right?  WRONG.  In your mind, you are constantly building paradigms of the world.  Everything fits into these paradigms.  When you don’t know anything about a subject (say, competitive wood shaving), you still have a model in your mind of how this probably works.  You have assumptions on everything.  New information can disprove these assumptions and replace them with a more accurate model.

Now let’s think about the impact of new knowledge.  Say you don’t really care about dog contests and know nothing about it.  You assumed that there was no money involved in this but recently learned you were wrong.  Great, you learned something new, but it wasn’t a big deal because you never really cared about it.  Being wrong didn’t feel bad.  And being proven wrong didn’t have too much impact on your life.

Now let’s imagine you strongly believe that multivitamins are good for you, and you LOVE them.  You eat ten a day and would eat more if you could afford it.  The more the better.  You loudly proclaim that everyone should eat more multivitamins and get a costco membership just so you can afford more.  Then a friend mentions that you could overdose.  You think she’s crazy.  But remember to keep an open mind.  Being right gains you nothing.  Learning you’re wrong in this case could save your life.

Mythbusters is a edutainment show that really demonstrates how being wrong can be fun.  Everyone has an opinion on whether certain myths are true.  Good episodes answer unknowns in explosive fashion.  GREAT episodes surprise us by taking myths where everyone believes one thing and is proven WRONG.  It’s at this point that the show bridges over from being entertainment, to being truly educational and impactul.  Getting your mind blown is fun.

Approach life as an opportunity to grow and invest in future-you.  Find the fun in busting the myths in your own head.

Monday, April 11, 2016

The Tyranny of Metrics: you get what you ask for

Image used under under Creative Commons CC0
I am a Silicon Valley engineer and a product manager.  As such, I have been bathed in the holy waters of data and baptized into the religion of metrics.  Numbers are hard, knowable, and unassailable.  They give you real ammunition to prove your success (or failure) and charts to show progress and the velocity of your team.  The scripture of metrics demands that you set measurable goals for success and then track those metrics.  Most large organizations will then incentivize and judge employees by the results of these metrics.  Where humans can be biased, (Jane is awesome because she likes rugby, just like me!) numbers are not.  Trust in the numbers.

This works great in most cases where success is about operational efficiency.  In a call center, the things you care about are number of calls handled, duration of each call, and the percentage of calls that are resolved in a positive (as defined by each company) manner.  Great.  Track this data, reward based on it, and each operator will be motivated to improve her numbers.  You have achieved operational efficiency.

But innovation is not efficient.  An organization or an individual can become better at innovation and guarantee long term success, but the path required is not a straight one.  Sometimes it will seem like you are moving backwards instead of forwards.  You’ll be constantly opening and closing the funnel.  It’s messy and somewhat unpredictable in the short term.  You should absolutely still use metrics and data to make your progress transparent, but resist the urge to move down the slippery slope of tying those metrics to incentives like compensation, promotion, and survival of the team.

Metrics should remain a tool to inform decisions, not to automate decisions.  In the innovation space, individuals and teams need to make judgements on what tasks, technologies, user research, relationships, experiments, infrastructure, etc. to invest their time and money in.  The problem is that you are now comparing not just apples and oranges, but apples and oranges, the taste of victory, the memory of a loved one, and the sound of silence.  These are so different that they do not condense into a few metrics.  But once you tie incentives to metrics, you are locking down the algorithm for making complex decisions.  In other words, the incentive system will do exactly what it was designed to, and nothing more.  The smart people you hired because of their ability to make good judgments in complex, ambiguous environments will instead make decisions based on the much simpler task of fulfilling the objectives set out by your incentive system.  If you set a metric on number of experiments, then you will get more experiments.  But all incentive systems are also disincentive systems.  People will stop doing other important tasks.  The experiments may not even be useful, but more will occur because that’s the metric.  The complex balancing that humans can do will go out the window.  What a waste.  Some people may still “do the right thing”, but now it is against their own financial self interest.  This will frustrate them to no end until they leave.

So what’s the alternative?  Hire smart people.  Align your goals and motivation.  And then TRUST your people.  In Daniel Pink’s book, “Drive”, he explores the science of human motivation and boils this down to autonomy, mastery and purpose.  Note, that not one of these key elements is monetary compensation.  Yes, money is important, but more as a feedback mechanism and a judgement of fairness.  When the very clear guidance of financial motivations conflict with the powerful but ambiguous motivations of autonomy, mastery, and purpose, you create non-beneficial tension in your innovation workers (i.e. unhappiness).  So please, avoid this.  Trust your people, and avoid letting metrics drive your process.  Don’t let the certainty of numbers cloud your team into making bad decisions and you’ll have a happier, more creative, and more successful team.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

How to Draw an Elephant: make others less infuriating and expand your knowledge

My drawing. To see what an elephant really looks like, click here
We’ve all been there before.  You’re listening to someone speak, and in your head, all you can think about is how complete and utterly WRONG this person is.  Is it rude to just interrupt her and tell her that she’s an idiot?  Maybe she’s your boss,  so that’s not appropriate.  Or maybe you’re listening to a political speech, and somehow the rest of the room is mesmerized by those lying lips.  There’s nothing you can do but quietly seethe on the inside.  How can this person completely defy common sense and logic?  It’s like a giant vise is clamping down on your soul.  Take a deep breath, and take moment to ponder a parable while this person continues yapping.

Once upon a time, six blind men in India hear that the king rides a marvelous creature at his court, something called an elephant.  They argue non-stop for days on what this beast must look like.  To settle this once in for all, they decide to travel to the court and rely on the wisdom of the king.  The king generously allows each man to touch the elephant in turn.  The first man feels a leg and says the elephant is like a pillar. The next one feels the tail and says the elephant is like a rope.  The third feels the trunk and says the elephant is like a tree branch.  The next feels the ear and says the elephant is like a hand fan.  The one who feels the belly says the elephant is like a wall.  The final blind man feels the tusk and says the elephant is like a solid pipe.  The men begin to argue violently about who is right until the king must order his guards to separate them.  He tells them that they are all correct and were merely touching different parts of the elephant.  To know the truth, they must put the parts together.

Do you think you know what an elephant looks like?  Draw one right now.  How far did you get?  Four legs, big ears, a trunk?  Did you get the tusks?  Does the elephant have eyelashes? Toes?  Feet?  Are the inside of the ears the same color? What is the shape of the ears, the back, the head?  How many nostrils does it have?  How are the teeth arranged?  What is the elephant eating?  How does it sleep?  What do you really know about elephants anyways?  Couldn’t you draw a better picture if you knew more?  Say you want to develop an innovative solution to elephant poaching.  Shouldn’t you know a lot more?

Now let’s get back to that really infuriating speaker.  Let’s consider the possibility that she’s not actually completely wrong.  Sure, she’s acting like she knows everything, but perhaps she’s only describing something that is true for her.  It’s not the whole elephant.  Maybe it’s just the little chip on the third toenail of the elephant.  But it’s still part of the elephant.  By listening to her, you are building your knowledge and increasing your ability to draw that elephant in fine detail.  But just because you acknowledge her truth in describing a part of the world, it does not diminish your own truth in any way.  It doesn’t make you wrong.  Do you feel that weight being pulled off your chest?  Can you breath again?  You can both be right.

So next time you’re holding yourself back from slugging someone because of just how WRONG he is, think about drawing an elephant.  Remember that this perspective is helping fill out details in your paradigm of the world and giving you the added perspective you need to solve problems in innovative ways.