Write Your Press Release First

There’s a saying that any creation is a second act, one which is preceded by the imagination.  Before we do anything, we conceive of it in our minds. It is this ability to visualize something that doesn’t yet exist that separates us from the animals (well, that and reality television).

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In an earlier post, I wrote about something I did once that took “visualization” to an extreme.  We were a small company that was on the verge of establishing a company-defining partnership with a multi-national behemoth.  Early in the negotiations, I wrote a press release “announcing” the relationship and shared it within our company.

Writing a press release at that point seemed odd since we had months of conference calls and negotiations in front of us. The outcome of those negotiations was far from assured. But it didn’t take long before we all agreed on our “faux press release”, complete with nonexistent quotes from executives from both companies.  Even as I wrote it, I knew the release as written would never see the light of day, but it was one of the most powerful press releases I’ve been involved with.  Why?

It required that we visualize the outcome, or as Stephen Covey so brilliantly captured it, “begin with the end in mind”.  Just as important, but perhaps less appreciated, is how it focused our team on what a “win” would look like, and kept the team motivated as we passed through the inevitable crises and obstacles that arose during the negotiation.

So it was with pleasure when I read this week that it is common practice for developers at Amazon to do the exact same thing. Key quote from the article:

“Before Amazon developers write a single line of code, they have to write the hypothetical product’s press release and FAQ announcement. 

Amazon uses this “working backwards” approach because it forces the team to get the most difficult discussions out of the way early, Jassy says. They need to fully understand what the product’s value proposition will be and how it will be pitched to customers. If the team can’t come up with a compelling press release, the product probably isn’t worth making.”

An Ancient and Modern Blindspot

In an ever changing business environment where leaders are confronted with every sort of barrier to success – competition, limited resources, fire drills, regulation, and so forth – there is one huge barrier to our success which we are only in the earliest stages of understanding: our minds.

The explosion of social psychology insights has been a recent phenomenon. It was less than a hundred years ago when many psychology “experts” adhered to the concept a phrenology, where a person’s personality and character could be determined by evaluating the shape of the skull. To say that humanity has come a long way since then is an understatement.

Phrenology chart. Use with caution.

Phrenology chart. Use with caution.

Much of our insights over the past few decades have demonstrated what we humans are up against. Our brains have evolved a number of biases over the millennia and frankly, many of them were more useful for our distant relatives who had to fend off frequent attacks from wild animals, bad weather and local enemies.

The evolutionary distance between those relatives and ourselves is small. The fact that we spend more time answering email messages than our caveman forefathers shouldn’t kid us about how similarly we confront threats.

One of the differences however is the explosion of incoming information and associated uncertainty.

To help ourselves assert control in such the face of chaotic information overload, we humans consistently exhibit Confirmation Bias – the inclination to seek out and attach emphasis to information which confirm our previously held beliefs. A cousin of confirmation bias is “selective perception” – a similar habit of avoiding emotional discomfort by selecting only information friendly to prior viewpoints.

I’m always interested to hear stories with confirmation bias at play, and I recently ran across one that is a classic business blunder we might relate to. The key here is to not feel superior when you read this. These were smart people who were stuck in a confirmation loop that you may very well be in yourself right now.

The story came via the Fortune Power Sheet, and concerned a story that writer Geoff Colvin had written about Sears, which based upon recent announcements appears to be in a painful death spiral:

How to Overcome Tension and Establish Connection

If you’re reading this, then you successfully made it through Thanksgiving without being killed by a family member during an emotional discussion about the recent presidential election. Congratulations! For those of you who attended a big Thanksgiving banquet where everyone voted the same way, then you either enjoyed a triumphant dinner with a generous helping of vindication to go along with your pie, or you participated in an emotionally draining group rage where fury and angst edged out “thankfulness”.

This election, more than any I can remember, has created deep emotional divisions. But as George Costanza brilliantly pointed out in a Seinfeld episode, “we’re living in a SOCIETY!” And as members of a society, we need to work together.

But that’s easier said than done when you’re annoyed (ok – really annoyed) about people who proudly wear the political colors of the opposing team. In fact, a related issue comes up in business quite a lot, where partners can bad-mouth the other party so much that the partnership exists only as a business contract, but not as an actual partnership.

And so you find yourself at a dinner table or in a conference room with people who you’re annoyed with before they speak. What are you to do?

The key is to establish the “human moment” apart from the subject that creates the divisions (work/politics/religion/whatever).

Let me share a current event example, and then provide an approach I learned a while ago that has come in handy for me a number of times.

First of all, what formal group of people have demonstrated themselves to be in such a state of permanent conflict that they can’t seem to get anything done? If you guessed “Congress”, then you’re on the right track. One of the troubling facts of American political life is the increasing numbers of Democrats and Republicans who view the other party as a “threat to the nation’s well-being”.

So it was with great interest that I read in a recent version of Fortune’s daily Power Sheet, written by Geoff Colvin, this story:

The Dangers of Outsourcing Your Sources

Probably all of us remember that one English class (or composition class or whatever your school system called it) where the teacher was a stickler for good content and rigorous adherence to the published school writing policy.  We learned to construct our arguments following accepted formats, demonstrate the difference between our work and the work of others, and to cite the sources we used by including footnotes and bibliographies which listed the metadata (tech term!) associated with each source – the author, title, publisher, the relevant pages, etc.

It turns out that in our business culture, citing your sources – or, even more importantly, knowing them – is perhaps a lost art but could separate the unserious from the serious.

Since I am always interested in how the world is changing and how globalization is affecting much of that change, it was with interest that I read this article about a town you never heard of: Veles (population: 45,000) in the Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

In the recent US presidential elections, much was written about the proliferation of “fake” news sites, which spin fake stories to excite partisans and drive social media shares, clicks, and ad revenue.  It turns out that the town of Veles specialized in this cottage industry during the recent US presidential election.  Here is a quote from a creator of just one of the 100 fake news sites in Veles:

Tom Hanks, Robert Malthus, and our Technology Blindspot

This is going to make me sound like a geek, but this past weekend I spent a few minutes flipping through an old college economics textbook.  I didn’t keep many of those textbooks, but I enjoyed the class and always thought having a book on the Evolution of Economic Thought (the book’s title) might be a good thing to add to my then very insignificant personal library.

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I spent a bit of time in the section about Thomas Malthus, a British economist in the late 18th century. If you were to associate one word with Malthus, that word would be “overpopulation”.  His name is tied to that word still today. Just to show that Malthus’s name has jumped the shark from dusty economics textbooks to current use, look at some of the coverage on Tom Hanks’ new movie “Inferno” (“Tom Hanks Endorses ‘Malthusian Theory’ of Overpopulation“)

Malthus viewed populations as growing geometrically but food production only increasing arithmetically – therefore, he predicted, the growing world population would lead to mass starvation.

Malthus would be shocked to see that some of the chief health challenges in the populous and industrialized world of today are more associated with obesity than starvation. The idea that only 2% of the United States’ 320M citizens work in farming is a rebuke to Malthus’s doomsday predictions.

What Malthus missed is the rise of technology and productivity. And while we might forgive Malthus for this blindspot (although not, in my mind, many of his disturbing proposed solutions to the overpopulation he so feared), it is more difficult to forgive it in ourselves. Yet I think we continue to have it – and I’m no exception.

In the era of the PC, it was hard to imagine what else there was that could be invented and create such a societal impact.  Ditto the iPhone and the rise of the mobile era.  Even as Moore’s Law continued, we humans have had a hard time envisioning how the future is likely to change drastically from the present.

The increase in the all our personal devices have perhaps blinded us to where real innovation happens.  We mistakenly conflate new and more spectacular devices with actual innovation (see here), but realistically our personal productivity hasn’t moved along as quickly as our vibrating and chirping personal devices might have us believe.

Here are a couple thoughts to consider as we look toward the future:

The Downside of Visualization

One of the more common held beliefs that has become widely held in the past few decades is the power of visualization.  There is much to be said for this.  Professional athletes spend princely sums on sports psychologists who help them prepare for peak performance through visualization.  One of the things that separates us from the animals is our ability to imagine an outcome.  Creation is a two part act:  all great creative results are preceded by imagination and the visualization of the outcome.

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But like so many things in life, the best path forward lies in moderation.  There was a time when the concept of visualization would have been met with derision.  I doubt any of the captains of industry who played roles in Charles Dickens’ novels would have been the sorts to engage in visualization (“Bah!  Humbug”).

On the other hand, visualization without execution is simply daydreaming – something all of us are guilty of from time to time.  But I recently read something that struck a nerve on this topic, and I wanted to share it with you.  It talks about how too much visualization can sap our focus by tricking us into thinking we’ve accomplished something.

I recently finished the outstanding book Ego Is The Enemy by Ryan Holiday.  Ryan is a young man who has traveled to higher heights and sunk to some lower lows than many of us ever will experience. Like the brilliant The Road to Character by David Brooks, a book I’ve written about earlier, Holiday’s book is about us confronting our insufferable weaknesses and learning how to recognize the pernicious effects our ego can play in our lapses and failures.

Here is the relevant passage as it relates to the downside of over-visualization (bold font is my emphasis):

Why You Should Salute Percy Spencer

Percy Spencer wondered why the candy bar in his pocket had melted.

It was the early 1940s, and as an expert in radar tube design, Spencer was working for Raytheon. During the critical years of WW II his team was responsible for building the magnetrons vital to combat radar equipment. Spencer’s innovations in magnetron production enabled the US to increase magnetron production from 17 per day to 2,600.

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In what is now lore, Spencer was standing in front of an active radar set when a candy bar he had in his pocket melted. This insight, and what he did next, led to the microwave ovens that changed the American kitchen.

Here’s the key statement from the Wikipedia article about Spencer: “Spencer was not the first to notice this phenomenon, but he was the first to investigate it.”

He experimented with popcorn kernels (microwave popcorn!) and an egg (which exploded in the face of one of the observing scientists).

I have written earlier about Abraham Lincoln making a similar observation about the importance of observing new phenomena – in that case, about the connection between the fluttering lid of a teapot and harnessing of steam power for trains. The key often isn’t about noticing something, but is about the next step you take after that.

Here are some other interesting tidbits about Percy Spencer that may amaze you as much as they amazed me …

We Are Human Beings

I was driving recently and happened to catch a rebroadcast of an episode of A Prairie Home Companion – Garrison Keillor’s incomparable radio program that somehow always stayed both respectful of the past yet – while a radio show – also relevant for today’s listener. During this episode, he recited a poem that was running through the mind of one of his characters during his “The News from Lake Wobegon” segment:

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Garrison Keillor

Somebody said that it couldn’t be done, but he with a smile replied
That maybe he couldn’t, but he would be one who wouldn’t say so ‘til he tried
So he buckled right in, with a bit of a grin, ‘til his screwdriver touched a live wire
And he let out a cry, and rose to the sky, and joined the Lord’s heavenly choir

The people who spoke for the eulogy, spoke of duty and ambition
They spoke well of the dead and nobody said
“Why didn’t he call an electrician?”

Garrison went on to capture something I believe in: each of us do a couple things really well, and “for everything else we should hire”. But he points out that this is a city person’s view of work – the theory of specialization.

A farmer’s view of work, on the other hand, is very different. Farmers are generalists – they can handle anything that comes their way. Work is redemptive for them. “You might be really messed up, and do weird things, but you could redeem yourself” through work and the ability to handle crops, equipment and challenges of all sorts.

We live in the economic times of specialization. We are told – and I believe this – that it is better to do a few things really well than several things in mediocre fashion.

And yet, this doesn’t mean we cannot be well-rounded.

So deepen your appreciation of something from the arts. Read history. In your non-work world, develop something that reflects this fact: we are human beings, not human doings.

Good luck!

Corporate Reputations, First Impressions, and GoDaddy

In the social media era, the only thing that spreads faster than a wildfire is a company’s reputation.  Like individual reputations, corporate reputations can be subject to exaggerations and overblown incidents which unfairly malign the organization with one broad stroke.  Recovering can take years.

This isn’t limited to small startups.  If you look at the reputations of General Motors and Volkswagen – both of which are embroiled in high profile legal challenges, you see that General Motors has attacked their issues head-on, while Volkswagen has been stonewalling (for a great write-up on this, go here). Chipotle is  another example of a company under stress that has lost some of the shine from their reputation.

But some reputational problems can be 100% intentional and self-inflicted, to wit GoDaddy.

What interests me about GoDaddy is my belief that what is true for people is also true for young companies:  You never get a second chance to make a first impression.
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We all remember GoDaddy’s infamous advertising campaigns a few years ago which caused Super Bowl-watching families to dive for the remote due to the overtly sexual (and female-degrading) nature of the commercials.  GoDaddy clearly decided to “go big” as they sought to establish their name.

This tack isn’t a new one.  Many companies will happily offend or disgust viewers if it cements the “name”. As the old Hollywood adage goes, “I don’t care what they write about me as long as they spell my name right”.  I assume GoDaddy was delighted with the outcry and resulting attention since they continued this strategy for a few years.

Thus I was interested in this interview with Blake Irving, the new CEO of GoDaddy (since 2012).  My first impression of Blake is that he is a high-quality, principled leader.   Here’s an excerpt from the accompanying article that captures the challenge:

Four Powerful Words Used By Brilliant People

There are a number of classic fables that I enjoy because they are as relevant today as they were centuries ago.  They’re classics for a reason.  One story that we’re all familiar with is The Emperor’s New Clothes written by Denmark’s Hans Christian Andersen in 1837.

emperors-new-clothesAs you recall, the Emperor is tricked by two weavers to believe that the magic clothes they created for him were the finest in the land but could not be seen by anyone unfit for his position or “hopelessly stupid”.  For this reason the Emperor can’t admit to himself that he can’t see his clothes, so he proceeds to parade before the townspeople as naked as the day he was born.  The townspeople, also not wanting to appear hopelessly stupid, go along with the charade until a child – too young for the artifice and pretense common among adults  – points out the obvious: the Emperor is, in fact, naked.

The video below is a snippet of such a moment from the movie Big. The key point is around the :20 mark when Josh Baskin, played by a young Tom Hanks, nervously raises his hand.  You remember it:

There are three things I love about this scene:

  1. I love that Josh is ignoring the blather about market growth and segments and immediately begins touching, turning, and trying to figure out how the toy works.  I have a suspicion that many people don’t exhibit curiosity in how their product works in the actual world after they leave the office (or even while they’re in the office).  Its good to remember that the financial results are the output, but the product is the input.
  2. After the pompous marketing executive finishes presenting his business plan to the executive team, they give him a round of applause.  It heightens the insular, self-congratulatory nature of the group.
  3. The real magic of this scene however is when Josh states the four magic words: “I don’t get it”.