Pediatrician doctor bandaging child's arm. Mother holding baby in her hands.

Hurtful, Hurt, Hurting

I was in a discussion recently where someone mistakenly assumed that I was still hurting because of some hurtful things that were done in the past. Interestingly, the person used the word “hurt” in their message. However, the context was the present tense, and hurt is mostly a past-tense verb. It’s about something that has happened and not something that is happening.

I realized that the difference between hurtful, hurt, and hurting were subtle but important distinctions that had helped me to heal. I wanted to share how I’ve had others do hurtful things to me, how I was hurt, and how I’m no longer hurting.

Hurtful Actions

If we were to be completely transparent, we’ve all done hurtful things to others. Whether we were vindictive, or we were simply inconsiderate of another person, we’ve all done hurtful things to others. My ex-wife chose my 40th birthday to file for divorce. (The same day that she threw a surprise birthday party for me.) I won’t ascribe intent; rather, I’ll assume that she just didn’t consider, or fully consider, the impact of this decision. Certainly there are less spectacular examples of how we have been angry and have harmed others. I’ve done it myself.

Hurtful things are hard because most of us recognize that this is not the person that we desire to be. (Unless your need for vengeance is very high – see Who Am I?
and The Normal Personality for more on the desire for vengeance.) We recognize that we create the harm that we want to eliminate in the world through our own behaviors. We can acknowledge that sometimes we do vindictive things – or careless things – and simultaneously recognize that these don’t represent the person we want to be. Said differently, this isn’t what we want to see on our tombstone. We aspire to greater virtues.

It’s been said that hurting people hurt people. Often we lash out at others because we are ourselves hurting. (The Anatomy of Peace talks about the “boxes” we get in – our hurt – and how we hurt or disregard others when we’re in the box.) Learning to be less vindictive and more compassionate to others often starts with managing how we’ve been hurt.

Predicting Hurt

Strangely enough, there’s not a direct relationship between hurtful actions and someone being hurt. Certainly a large percentage of hurtful actions lead to someone else being hurt, but some hurtful actions don’t harm the other person. Sometimes people feel that their anger and resentment will harm another person, but Nelson Mandela said that, “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.” Sometimes our efforts to be hurtful to others only hurt ourselves.

On the other hand, people are harmed even when the actions are the most loving and considerate. What one person attempts to express as their love or consideration may in fact be harmful to the other person, either because of misperception of the actor, or an undiscovered and covered wound of the recipient.

Despite all of the values and desires-based models for understanding other people, we still can’t accurately how they’ll respond to someone being hurtful – or helpful. Consider an adult whose parents taught them that to accept the help of others demonstrates that you’re weak, and that weak people are to be detested. So a well-meaning person holds the door open for this adult, and they are insulted. Certainly holding a door open for someone shouldn’t hurt them – but it can.

Perhaps more powerfully, there are situations where there is no malice and yet we are hurt. My dog died because of cancer and my brother was killed in an airplane accident. Neither of these hurts that I suffered were caused by someone else, but they were hurts that I felt none-the-less.

Responses to Hurt

People react differently to being hurt. Some people shut down and try to defend themselves from the world. (See Intimacy Anorexia for more on isolating the world from our true selves.) Some people get angry and lash out. Anger is disappointment directed, so they’re focusing their disappointment into a direction. (For more on anger being disappointment directed see Emotional Intelligence or Destructive Emotions.) Some people have become so comfortable with being hurt that they simply walk through it and immediately set on the path of healing.

Those who choose to respond to being hurt by shutting down are creating a pressure cooker. They’ve focused the energy of the hurt internally. The problem with pressure cookers is that there has to be a release valve – something to release the pressure if it gets too high that it becomes unsafe. Unfortunately, all too often pressure cooker folks don’t have a good way to blow off steam, and ultimately explode at the person who has hurt them or is hurting them. The resulting explosion can be productive but frequently is not, as the actual message about the hurt is lost in the response.

Turning the hurt inward isn’t all bad. When used with appropriate safety valves to blow off steam – like good friends or other mechanisms of self-care – it can be a powerful way of dealing with hurt. By capturing the energy from the hurt, it can be leveraged for change in our own lives. It can be removing a toxic, hurtful person from our lives or, more importantly, it can propel us towards self-improvement to make it harder for others to hurt us.

This, too, can be positive or negative. If we do self-improvement to minimize the hurt that others inflict us, that’s good. If we shut down and block other people out, that is bad. Humans are designed to be in relationship with others. As Emotional Intelligence mentioned, isolation is “as significant to mortality rates as smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, and lack of physical exercise.” We can internalize our hurt if we’re able to leverage the energy of the hurt to our betterment and strengthen our ability to connect more authentically with others.

Another approach to hurt is to act out. For some, this is anger and pounding fists on the desk. For others, it’s engaging in activities that release dopamine. (See The Rise of Superman for more on neurochemicals and their purposes.) The activities can be positive, life-giving activities like exercise, or they can be destructive, shame-cycle-inducing activities like compulsive shopping, alcohol, or drugs. These activities numb and hide the pain for a time, but ultimately fade and leave in their wake a toxic cloud of guilt and shame. (See Daring Greatly for more on the difference between guilt and shame.)

Acting out can also be an immediate call to make things better. It can be to immediately evacuate the situation and find a safer place to be. As a result, neither “bottling up” our hurt nor “acting out” our hurt is a best way to address our pain. We have to find our own path to healing that may include components of both – and hopefully avoids the toxic side effects that keeps us hurting.

The Meaning of Hurt

Hurt is a signal that damage is being done. Our muscles hurt after a workout because they’ve been torn apart. However, the pain from our muscles fades in time as the muscles heal themselves. For most of the experiences in our lives, being hurt doesn’t mean that we’ll permanently be in pain. It is simply a temporary signal for us to recognize what is happening.

We describe hunger pains and yet most of us in the US are far from starving. Our hunger pains aren’t “pains” as much as they are signals from our body that it believes there’s a need for more food. It’s our digestive system’s way of telling us that it has capacity to process more food and increase our energy levels.

All that we consider “hurt” aren’t necessarily pains. Some of the hurts that we experience are simply signals. Signals that we need to consider where we are – but not necessarily that we are irreparably harmed.

Recovering from Hurt

No matter who has hurt you, it’s you that are responsible for healing your hurts. It can be your parents, an ex-spouse, a friend, neighbor, or a stranger – no matter who it is, you’re responsible for your healing. No one else can do that for you. (See Bonds That Make Us Free and Changes that Heal for more on healing our own wounds, and Compelled to Control for what can happen if we don’t.)

When the pain is large it isn’t necessarily that we’re going to recover all at once. Recovery is a process. We can start to recover then pause – and come back later. There isn’t one path to recovering from hurt – but whatever path that you choose, it’s healthy to walk the path of recovery

Still Hurting

What happens when you fail to heal yourself – or the hurt is too new – is that you’re still hurting. The length of time that someone will continue to hurt is dependent upon several factors, including the magnitude of the hurt, the general health of the individual, and the efforts taken to resolve the hurt. In the death of another, it’s hard to heal. (See On Death and Dying for the grieving process, and High Orbit – Respecting Grieving for recovering from this kind of hurt.) Betrayals are also particularly difficult harms to overcome. For more on overcoming betrayals, see my post Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy.

These types of hurts are hardest to recover from because they leave scar tissue. In our human bodies, scar tissue is tissue that didn’t heal quite right. Sure we’re OK and we’re not hurting any longer, but that tissue is particularly sensitive to further damage. Whether it’s a knee that didn’t quite heal right, or a scar on our arms, it’s an unavoidable result of having been hurt.

When you lose someone close to you, you feel their loss at anniversaries, birthdays, holidays, and any special thing that you and they shared together. Some of those situations you learn to anticipate and brace yourself for the hurt that will wash over you. Sometimes you won’t see it coming, and you’ll feel the hurt again – but it will be a little less painful each time.

With betrayal it’s hard, because the voice of doubt that we all have in our heads is hard to silence. When I wonder if someone is upset with me and in the past they’ve lashed out at me, it’s harder to stop those thoughts and remind myself that that isn’t the way that they behave. Once trust has been broken, it’s no longer possible to say that this is something that they would never do – because they have, in fact, done it.

The tricky part of being in the spot where you’re still hurting is that if you rush the healing too much, you end up with more scar tissue – that you’ll deal with for years to come. If you linger too long in the hurting, you run the risk of becoming bitter and living in victimhood. Finding the right amount of time to allow the hurt is both personality-dependent and situational. There’s no one time that you should stop hurting and move the pain into the past.

However, the extremes are always bad. If you move past hurt by ignoring it – by stuffing it – you’re still hurting, you’re just not acknowledging the hurt and this causes more hurt to yourself as you’re betraying yourself. It tends to cause your emotions to lash out at you by creating illness or anxiety that’s impossible to locate. It turns out that the relationship between our rational rider and our emotional elephant is critical, even if we don’t want to acknowledge it. (See the Rider-Elephant-Path model in The Happiness Hypothesis for more.)


There are stories that we tell ourselves about our behaviors and the behaviors of others. These stories are natural but aren’t necessarily good for us. We tend to frame stories in terms of three actors:

  • Victim – This is the person who is harmed.
  • Villain – The person (or entity) that needlessly inflicted the harm.
  • Rescuer – The person who lifts the victim out of their despair.

Permanently assigning one of the roles to ourselves or others (i.e. type-casting) isn’t helpful for us. We need the ability to grow and change. (See Mindset about changing our mindset.) If we decide that we are permanently in the victim role because we’ve been hurt, we’ll be stuck.

Victimhood isn’t a bad place to visit from time to time, particularly as we’ve been victimized, but it’s an awful place to live. (See Boundaries, Beyond Boundaries, Daring Greatly, and Change or Die for more on victimhood.)

Everyone has been hurt and will be hurt again. The best thing to do is learn how to deal with it better.


Book Review-Traction: How Any Startup Can Achieve Explosive Customer Growth

Years ago I owned a sports car. It was a Mitsubishi 3000GT VR4. Over 300 horsepower of twin-turbo-charged fun. It had one unique characteristic not found in most sports cars of the time. It was all-wheel drive. Why in the heck would you make a sports car all-wheel drive? It’s not like you’ve got enough ground clearance to go off-roading with it. The answer was simple: traction. With all four wheels turning, it could convert the power in the motor into forward motion. I never spun the tires. The best I could ever get was a slight chirp before all four wheels started digging in and throwing you back in your seat. That’s what we need in our startups. We need something to transform the power of our idea, our innovation, into a business that’s making money and propelling us forward. That’s the subject of Traction: How Any Startup Can Achieve Explosive Customer Growth.

Knowing What Works

I asked a friend of mine who teaches at a university, who happens to have a master’s degree in marketing, what I was doing wrong with my marketing. I was convinced I was doing something wrong because it didn’t feel like it was working. His response wasn’t what I expected. “You just throw stuff against the wall and see what sticks.” With an advanced degree in marketing he basically said, “try stuff.” I tell you, I’d want my money back from that college.

However, the more time I spend with marketing and people who do marketing, the more that seems to be the answer. The goal with marketing is to make lots of little expenditures to see which ones work – and then you build on and leverage the working approaches. It seems like there should be a better formula for making things work, but there isn’t.

Nineteen Ways to Create Traction

Every business is a bit different. Every situation requires its own approach. That’s why the authors provide nineteen different approaches to creating traction:

  • Targeting Blogs – Finding and engaging with the blogs that your customers read.
  • Publicity – How do you create publicity for your organization to potentially create a windfall of customers? Getting noticed by magazines, newspapers, and TV shows have this power.
  • Unconventional PR – How do you get noticed? Sometimes it’s a publicity stunt and sometimes it’s uncommon care for customers. Either way, unconventional PR is what draws traditional publicity to you.
  • Search Engine Marketing – More and more people are searching for content instead of navigating. If you want to get people’s attention they need to be able to find you, and for most folks that’s through search. With this strategy, you pay for each click.
  • Social and Display Ads – Everyone’s talking about the power of social to draw people to your organization. This channel drives activity through social channels organically and through paid ads.
  • Offline Ads – While it’s an online world, print and other offline advertising mediums aren’t dead yet. This channel uses offline to get more bottom line.
  • Search Engine Optimization – If you’re good at creating content, you may be able to leverage organic clicks instead of paying for them by optimizing your content to match the keywords that users are typing in their searches. This may mean a lot of trial and error – but the long tail on the leads it drives to your site are powerful.
  • Content Marketing – Creating content for web pages targeted at search engine optimization is one thing, but there are also strategies around creating whitepapers and videos which help you collect prospect names, and then you can market to them directly.
  • Email Marketing – SPAM is something everyone hates – because it’s so effective. Where printed pieces may cost a dollar or more to send, you can send thousands of email messages for pennies each. Email marketing can be effective if you can get the right names.
  • Engineering as Marketing – Sometimes engineering can create a useful tool or widget that you can offer for free. This provides a way to collect information and provides a service at the same time. Giving someone something they value at the start of the relationship can speed closing times and improve closure rates.
  • Viral Marketing – Everyone wants to have their marketing effort take off on its own, but how does that work and how do you keep it going? By crafting messages and content, it’s possible to create things that people want to share—and thus they go viral.
  • Business Development – Sometimes you just need feet on the street or at least someone smiling and dialing. That’s business development. It’s trying to create partnerships that lead to sales.
  • Sales – Sometimes the only way to get customers is to sell to them directly. This is only a scalable traction channel if you can create a repeatable sales process.
  • Affiliate Programs – Sometimes the channel you need for traction is to have other people send folks to you. Every book I review here has an affiliate link to Amazon, so I get a small portion of the cost of the book as a referral fee.
  • Existing Platforms – Any place where folks gather, like App Stores, you can leverage to create traction. This is why there are so many free apps in the App Stores for various mobile platforms.
  • Trade Shows – Getting folks in one place at one time can be a great way to get your message across and create awareness, if you leverage the event correctly.
  • Offline Events – Creating your own meetup or conference can be a way to drive interest in your product, though admittedly this channel may be harder to execute.
  • Speaking Engagements – Speaking has the benefit of creating instant credibility, but the draw backs of needing skills to do it right and the need to find places to get an audience.
  • Community Building – Ultimately, getting people that think the same way and are enthused about what you’re offering is the holy grail of getting devotion. However, creating communities isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s difficult to get right and requires more than a bit of luck.

If you’re looking for more information on specific ideas for ways to get traction through these channels you might want to see Brand is a Four Letter Word, Fascinate, Guerrilla Marketing, Demand, and The New Rules of Marketing and PR. The channels that are presented in Traction aren’t new – but viewing them as a set of options for engaging your audience is.

Splitting Time

There’s a challenge in any startup. That challenge is the allocation of resources. Do you spend time on product development or do you spend time on marketing, sales, and getting customers – in a word, do you spend time on getting traction? This isn’t really an “either-or” question. You need to do both. You need to have something to sell and a channel to sell it. I’ve personally seen plenty of bad products get sold for a short time before failing spectacularly, and plenty of great products that never made it because they couldn’t get enough traction in the market.

The recommendation is to split time equally between these two areas – developing what you’re selling, and selling what you’re developing. While this is sound advice, I think the idea that you would split it evenly isn’t a great plan. Each organization and situation will be different. You’ll need to find a way to walk between what you spend creating the product and what you spend creating traction.

A or B?

One of the skills that I find difficult to force myself to do is to do A/B testing. Which subject line works better? Which marketing message resonates more with the younger audience? It’s absolutely a necessity to do if you want to optimize the output of your channels – whatever they are. However, it’s infuriating to me because it requires more than double the work the second idea always seems harder), and too many times for me the differences aren’t material. They just don’t matter.

I have to struggle to force myself to do it and it, for me, takes quite a bit of willpower. I know that, with folks that have larger budgets and more time to create messages, it can mean the difference between success and ho-hum results, just at my scale it’s difficult to justify.

Looking into the Bull’s Eye

The recommendation is to brainstorm ideas about the kinds of traction channels that you believe can be effective, and ideas to test out those channels, then run small-scale tests in those channels. You track and observe the results of those channels, and then find a channel that works and ramp up your participation in that channel. It seems simple, but the devil is in the details.

When brainstorming which traction channels are going to be effective, we realize that, in the end, we really don’t know. Some small idea that seems barely worth thinking about can have a high conversion rate and do more than campaigns in other channels that require 10 times as much effort.

Try Different

As I mentioned in my review of Selling to VITO, we’re in an attention economy. Anything that we can do that is different can be memorable. Whether it’s a non-traditional PR stunt or a completely different way to do an ad on a billboard, we’re hardwired to find differences. Those differences lead to focus and attention, and that can mean the difference between people becoming interested in what we’re doing or getting lost in the noise.

As you’re doing things, look for different. Look for something that you can do that has never been done before. The wackier, funnier, and more odd it is, the more likely that it will get noticed – and get you noticed.

Speak to Me

I’ve made speaking a large part of my attempts to create traction for a long time. I’ve got experience at it, but at the same time I’m always trying to get better at it. Whether it’s reading Great Speeches for Better Speaking or looking Inside Jokes, I continue to refine my craft. I believe that many organizations like the idea of generating leads and credibility at the same time, so speaking seems like a great traction channel to try. The one thing I can say about this speaking process is that most of my fellow speakers admit that there’s very little direct business that they get through speaking. As consultants and product companies, they see some – but not a lot – of activity. They realize that the greatest benefit of speaking is the credibility that it lends. They use this credibility to reduce their sales cycles and to make their other traction channels more effective, rather than leveraging speaking as a primary lead generation tool.

Conversely, I know of a few speakers who book small venues across the country and make their living by selling a handful of people in the crowds their audio and video products. It’s works but, in my opinion, it’s a hard way to make a living.

So whether it’s speaking or some other channel that works for you, I hope you find your Traction.


Book Review-Selling to VITO: The Very Important Top Officer

Who do you sell to when you sell? Do you sell to the person that you’re able to reach or to the right person? Do you start your sales process knowing who you’re ultimately going to have to convince? If you do, then why don’t you start there and have them refer you down to folks to talk to before coming back up for the final approval? Won’t that make it easier? That’s what Selling to VITO: The Very Important Top Officer is all about. How to engage the right person in the right way from the start so you’ll close more deals and waste less time.

Afraid of Heights

Most sales folks that I know are afraid to call on people higher in the organization than they’re used to dealing with to close and execute the deal. They don’t want to talk to the CEO or the COO or the CFO. They believe that that person is too busy to be bothered with their call. In some cases, this is backed by some personal experiences trying to reach out to that person. However, more frequently it’s just lore. They believe that the top officers of the company aren’t interested in what they have to sell because they’ve heard that they aren’t. While there are, I’m sure, sales circumstances where you’re truly offering a commodity product with no differentiating factors, I doubt that you’re in one of those situations.

In some sense it’s true that the VITOs in an organization aren’t interested in what you’re selling. They don’t want your widget or education or whatever. However, on the other hand, they do want the results that whatever you’re selling does provide. And if the results to their organization are perceived to be large enough and your solution seems credible enough, they’ll not only give you their attention, they’ll buy. Working with VITO is, in fact, the only person who can choose to buy.

Leaving Linoleum

When we start selling we’re happy to get any appointment. We just want someone who will be willing to talk to us. We want to believe they’ll buy because we want to believe that we can sell. However, the reality is that some people – particularly those who are the most willing to meet with a sales person – aren’t going to buy, because they can’t buy.

Parinello makes the point that those who live in “Linoleumville” – those whose offices have linoleum on the floor – can’t make a decision. Those with more expensive floors do that. The recommenders (who have no power at all), and the influencers (who have power to block a decision) are the ones that live in Linoleumville. The decision makers and the approvers (VITO) don’t work in environments with cheap floors. The hierarchy looks like this:

When you’re working with someone below the line, they quite literally can’t buy from you. They can only influence a buyer above the line, so why not start with them in the first place?

A common objection that I’ve heard over the years is that the sales person doesn’t know what to say to the VITO or how to talk to them. This is, in my opinion, simply a lack of preparation. If you can’t articulate the benefits of your solution, then you can’t sell. If you don’t know what to say to folks who are your VITO, then you need some coaching or mentoring support from someone who does.

Understanding Your Value

In order to get the sale, you have to help the VITOs understand the problem that they’re currently experiencing, including its costs, and how your solution can solve this problem for them. You have to be convincing not just in the problem and its costs to the organization, but that you are the right person to solve that problem for them. (Technically, you can also talk about opportunities rather than problems, but as Daniel Kahneman discusses in Thinking, Fast and Slow, we react more strongly to problems.)

In my work with SharePoint and knowledge management, this has been a difficult thing. It’s not like some of the manufacturing integrations I’ve done where we can precisely measure the impact of the implementation on the business. There are real hard dollar savings. SharePoint is squishy and, in truth, I have always had a hard time selling someone on the idea of SharePoint, because I don’t have hard numbers for them.

If they’re already coming to me with an awareness that their employees aren’t collaborating or that their employees don’t feel connected to the organization, I can help. If they don’t know that, then I’m at a loss to help them. Even quoting folks like Gallup and indicating the problems with employee engagement doesn’t typically help.

While I know that there is value in what I do, and that organizations can absolutely benefit from the technology implementation – but, more importantly, from the development that we do in association with the technology implementations – it’s very hard to communicate this value, because the pains that they’re experiencing are too hidden.

Differentiating from the Competition

Before you can talk, write, or solicit a VITO, you have to get clear on your differential value from your competitors. Once you’ve convinced them they have a problem and how much it’s costing them, you need to expect that they’re going to check out your competitors. Even if you don’t believe you have competitors, there are folks who will want to compete with you.

In general, inside of an organization we tend to focus too much on the differences between our offerings and the offerings of the competitors. We discuss how we have the XYZ feature and how they do not. However, all too often we forget that this customer doesn’t need the XYZ feature. We’ve lost focus on the differences to their business.

When differentiating ourselves from potential competitors, it’s important to communicate what the impact of the difference is to the customer. For instance, “Using our ABC process instead of the older XYZ process yields 20% less waste. Because of this your operations will be 5% more efficient with our solution.”

It gets squishier when you work in non-specific things. Every consulting company says they have the best people. Every organization says that they have more experience. How do you create credibility markers that help customers understand your differential value?

Credibility Markers

Credibility markers are things that a customer can look at to see the value that you offer. It might be an award you’ve received (in my case, 13 years of the Microsoft MVP award), a certification that you’ve achieved (like MCSE, etc.), articles or books that you’ve written, or customers that you’ve helped. These credibility markers help your customer understand that others believe you have differential value.

In every sales process, there is a stage where you’ll have to establish credibility with the customer that you can solve their problem (and do it better than your competitors). The more credibility markers that you acquire, the more likely it is that the customer will accept your assertion that you can solve their problem – and do it better than anyone. Sometimes the credibility markers don’t come in the form of third-party validation. Instead, the credibility marker comes from bonding with and connecting to the prospect. While this is an effective way to address the barrier to the sales process, it’s also a time-consuming and risky one. There will be people that you just won’t be able to connect with.

Sales Process

Replication of success is a hard thing, particularly in sales where it feels like every client engagement is different. In fact, when everything is different it’s impossible to scale. If you want to grow your organization, you have to grow your sales, and to grow your sales you have to have a process. When you define a process through suspects, prospects, opportunities, and customers you can create a set of responses that can be repeated by anyone. You can scale your workforce by adding people and having them follow the process. Anthony Parinello estimates that 70% of the customers that he works with didn’t have a sales process – or weren’t following it when he started working with them. My experience with my peers is similar. Most don’t have a defined sales process.

Sometimes the sales process is called a “sales funnel”. That is, there are a large number of folks at the top, and through the process more and more fall out. If we start with suspects, these are people who you suspect might want your services. You qualify them into prospects by identifying that they have the need that your organization fulfills. They become opportunities if they’re willing to speak with you about a specific solution. Technically, in a customer relationship management system, prospects have opportunities associated with them, but in a simplified process you think of the prospect themselves moving along the process rather than a separate entity named opportunities. Finally, when they place an order, they become customers.

At each point in this funnel, some of the prior level are excluded. The trick is to make sure that you’re excluding the right people (people you’ll never sell to) while including the right people (people you have a chance of selling to). This means that your criteria for moving folks to the next stage – or kicking them out of the funnel – needs to be effective.

The Outcasts from the Process

One of the things that I know from being in business for over 10 years now, is that there are some prospects that just aren’t ready to buy – yet. My best clients are ones which have gotten kicked out of the sales funnel and nurtured for a long time. These are organizations that I’ve courted passively for years. They’re the folks that aren’t interested in buying immediately, but who I kept in a nurturing campaign. That is, I knew they were prospects because they had the problem that I solved but they didn’t have a current need.

The key with the nurturing campaign is that it’s a low-cost campaign. They’re getting a newsletter or similar mass-market set of materials that keeps me in mind, but at the same time doesn’t cost much to execute. It’s also key that this program is running alongside the sales process, not as a part of it. It’s an engine to reclaim people who are kicked out of the process.

Filling the Funnel

Certainly when we’re selling, we’re interested primarily in getting to the VITO, and deciding which of the VITOs that we reach are interested in buying from us. We kick people out of the sales funnel then nurture them back in if necessary; however, what about people who shouldn’t be in our funnel but who have the capacity to help us fill our sales funnel with the right kind of qualified leads?

Every business leader I’ve ever known is aware of how their organization generates leads (or doesn’t). While it’s the sales process that brings home the deal and converts the prospects into customers, how do you get prospects – or even suspects for that matter? The answer is lead generation and filling the funnel. Typically, this is thought of as the dividing line between sales and marketing. It’s marketing’s job to fill the funnel with suspects and prospects, and sales’ job to close the deal. However, in my experience, this is an oversimplification.

In some organizations, it’s an inside sales representative that qualifies suspects as prospects or not. In other organizations, marketing is expected to deliver prospects to the sales team – not suspects, but qualified leads that the sales folks can close.

No matter where you draw the line, it’s clear that we need suspects going into the process to get customers on the other end. To do that, there are traditional marketing approaches and non-traditional marketing approaches. (See Brand is a Four Letter Word, Fascinate, Guerrilla Marketing, Demand, and The New Rules of Marketing and PR for more on marketing ideas.) However, some of the best leads that I’ve ever received have come from people, not programs. In particular, there are two types of people that you could consider leveraging to fill your funnel.


For the SharePoint Shepherd’s Guide products, we created a formal distributor network. We reached out to systems integrators and others who we thought would be able to generate additional value for themselves and their customers by selling a license of the SharePoint Shepherd’s Guide for End Users.

There’s an agreement and a payment schedule that rewards people who sell licenses of the Shepherd’s Guide for us. They’re like having a sales force without having a sales payroll. Distributors have the ability to increase your sales capacity more than you could do on your own.

While distributors don’t account for a major component of our revenue, it’s a non-trivial amount of revenue and we know that they’re helping us reach more people than we could reach on our own.

The key to a distributor is that they’re actually making the transaction with the customer. In effect, the distributor becomes your customer. This is quite a different relationship than you’ll have with a contracted sales representative – one form of the advocate.


There are really two kinds of advocates. The first kind is the contracted sales representative or agency. They’re being paid to be your advocate in front of the customer. They’ll do all the sales funnel work and let your team close the deal in return for some sort of compensation. The second kind is actually much more interesting. The unpaid advocate is your advocate because they like you, your brand, or what you stand for. These advocates don’t need – or typically even want – compensation when they refer people to you.

Advocates tend to do the vetting process, converting suspects into prospects before they even hit your sales funnel. This can save you a ton of time because of the quality of the lead/prospect that you’re getting. In addition, they’re probably adding credibility to you and your product by the referral, so the prospects are easier to move downstream through the sales process.

One can get distributors by looking into directories. You can get paid advocates by searching for sales representatives and sales rep companies. However, getting the unpaid advocates requires delivering value to them, either personally or to their organization.

Thought Leadership

Marketing has been adapting to the ability to distribute content cheaply and thereby create awareness of the thought leadership inside of the organization. The challenge here is what is thought leadership? In general, it’s an individual or firm whose thinking is regarded as leading an industry. Not everyone or every organization can be a thought leader, though many try. The true thought leaders look at the problems that businesses face differently, and as a result have the ability to change the point of view of the VITO towards a solution that they might not have considered before. True thought leaders challenge the thinking of the prospect to get them to see the problem differently. (See The Challenger Sale.)

Attention Deficit Disorder

We don’t live in an information economy. We live in an attention economy. We have, in our pockets, instant access to more information than our grandparents had access to in their lifetimes. Our phones can store more than the computers (and supercomputers) of just a generation ago, and they have the ability to connect us with information that would have been unimaginable just 20 years ago. No matter what you want to learn how to do, it’s likely that someone somewhere has posted it on the Internet for free public consumption. The problem isn’t access to content, it’s curation of content and knowing whether to trust it or whether it will help you. (Don’t believe the picture of Abe Lincoln telling you that everything you find on the Internet is true.)

We diagnose children with attention deficit disorder (ADD), but the truth is that this is the plague of our age. Sally Hogshead says in Fascinate that the average attention span of a person is less than that of a goldfish. Parinello says that you have three seconds to get the VITO’s attention. You get 30 words. You get three slides. That’s it. So stop filling your precious few seconds with ice breakers, fillers and introductions. Get to the point. If you don’t, you’ll never have the chance.

Leaders are Readers

How many books have you read in the last year? The average is four. If you exclude those who’ve not read any, the average is seven. How many does the average VITO read? Twenty. Sixteen professional, and four for fun. The most respected leaders read volumes. Bill Gates is estimated to read 50 books per year. Warren Buffet spends more than five hours per day reading. When you’re talking to a VITO, the odds are that you’re speaking with someone who reads a lot.

As a sales professional, this creates both an opportunity to add value and an opportunity to connect. You can add value by summarizing the key points in the latest business book. If the VITO hasn’t read that book, you’re adding value by helping them decide if they should read it or not. (There were over 300,000 books released in 2013 – the odds are, even if they’re voracious readers, they won’t have read the books that you’ve read.) If they have read it, then it’s an opportunity to connect with the things that they’ve already learned.

Assistants and Gatekeepers

Every VITO has some sort of an assistant. These are the people that are in place to help make the VITO as productive as possible, and that often means shielding the person from sales people who want to reach them (and waste their time). Parinello makes the point that you need to treat these gatekeepers with the same interest and respect as you would the VITO. He goes so far as to say that you should forget the VITO exists and treat the personal assistant as if they were the VITO.

I can tell you from my experiences that there have been many places where I’ve been a consultant, and I’ve been allowed back into the building by the receptionist simply because I treated them with respect. My clients are often confused to see me show up at their desk, because the official policy is that no one walks back unescorted. However, because I’m willing (and interested in) treating the receptionist as an important person, I’m provided access that others don’t get. How does that relate to getting a conversation with the VITO? It’s the same thing. If you want to get access to the VITO, you have to treat the gatekeeper with respect – whether it’s the personal assistant or the receptionist. There’s a story about Southwest Airlines bringing folks in for crew interviews. They’re picked up at the airport by a bus driver. The driver takes them to where the interviews are taking place – and promptly dismisses several of the folks. The driver it turns out was the VP of HR, and she was looking for the right cultural fit in the people they were interviewing. The candidates who were dismissed treated her as if she wasn’t worthy of respect.

One delicate balance that helps is the sense of confidence that you can give off by speaking the VITOs name clearly and crisply. This signals that you know what’s going on – and the sense that you belong can often carry you through.

Converting a Negative into a Positive

Do you know what the difference is between a negative and a positive? One vertical line. That’s it. One of the best opportunities in sales is recognizing that the prospects’ objections may be the best sales tools of all. When your solution completely addresses the VITO’s objection, you can respond with that. When they say that they’re not interested in what you’re proposing, you can ask what their greatest challenges are – and if it lines up with something that your organization can help with, you can share how you’ve helped others with similar problems.

No still means no. If they don’t want to talk, you can’t bully your way into a conversation. But if they’re willing to tell you why they’re not interested in what you’re offering or to share what’s more important to them at the moment, you have the opportunity to transform an objection into a way to connect with their most important need.

Who is in Sales?

One of the things that I’ve come to realize is that it isn’t just the sales person that’s making sales. It’s not just the sales person who is making calls. Sales managers make calls and close deals, but all too often if the deal is difficult, complicated, or large, it’s the owner who is trying to close the deal.

I sometimes get asked who is in sales. My answer is everyone. However, a more precise answer is anyone who cares about the organization. If you want the organization to survive, it needs sales, and to get sales, it needs sales people – all of the sales people that it can get its hands on. It’s time for everyone with hands to help sell what the organization can do.

Executing the Conversation

One of the things that I often see really good relationship sales people fail at is setting action items and next steps. These are essential facilitation and project management techniques that can make the difference between a 30-day sales cycle and a 90-day sales cycle. (See The Four Disciplines of Execution for more on keeping your meetings on track.)

Whether you buy into everything that has been shared here or even just a little bit, you should consider Selling to VITO just to see if you can.

VITO Rules

Through the book are a set of VITO rules. I’ve included a summary of them here:

# Rule
0 VITO is the ultimate approver of everything that happens in the organization, including your sale.
1 VITO will like me because I am like VITO.
2 VITO will like what my product can do for him or her because it’s in alignment with what VITO wants.
3 I am measured at my job as a salesperson in a way that’s similar to how VITO is measured at the job of Very Important Top Officer.
4 Because time is so valuable, VITOs don’t treat all potential business relationships equally, and neither should you.
5 When you fly with VITO, everybody else in the organization follows!
6 Be accountable for your own sales process.
7 A process isn’t a process unless you can replicate it.
8 Above every Decision Maker, and above every decision in the enterprise, sits VITO— the approver of the sale and everything else.
9 No matter what anyone else in the buying enterprise has to say about some salesperson’s offering, VITO can (and often will) kill that offering on a moment’s notice.
10 VITO’s Decision Makers get paid to say yes.
11 Influencers can’t buy jack. Never could. Never would. Never will. Period. End of story.
12 Follow the perfect sales process.
13 Like VITO, you have to be willing to change course as circumstances demand in order to hit your goal.
14 What matters is not the title, but the traits you share with VITO.
15 Selling to VITO (also known as picking up the phone and calling VITO) is marketing, advertising, public relations, and sales all at the same time!
16 When you create any written correspondence that you want VITO to actually process, you’ll have to make it a fast read. A fast read in VITO’s world means thirty seconds.
17 VITOs are looking for ways to improve every area of their organization, not just the area you happen to know about and are working with.
18 You must know which VITOs to approach… and which not to approach.
19 You must know how to approach VITO.
20 Every piece of VITO correspondence has six specific parts, each of which must stand on its own but also be logically connected to all the other parts.
21 It’s okay to make mistakes… because none of this is life-threatening.
22 Once you complete all eight of the precorrespondence steps, and not before, you will be ready to send your VITO correspondence.
23 When interacting with the Receptionist Gatekeeper, you must close with the words, “Thank you!” spoken briskly and confidently!
24 When talking with Tommie, forget that VITO exists!
25 The tone, modulation, and pacing of your voice will determine how easy or difficult it is for VITO to listen to (and act on!) your message.
26 Be ready for all of the six good things that can happen during a call to VITO.
27 You will inevitably be shunted to the person within VITO, Inc. whom you sound the most like.
28 Do not accept shunts from unqualified opportunities!
29 Know what you want from the meeting.
30 Don’t use more than one or two closed-ended questions during your entire conversation with VITO!
31 The more time, energy, attention, and money VITO invests in the relationship with you, and the better you are at demonstrating to VITO the hard- and soft-dollar value your products, services, and solutions have actually delivered to VITO, Inc. in return for that investment, the less likely the account is to disconnect from you.
32 After a good call with VITO, call another VITO immediately.
33 Use what works; avoid what doesn’t.
34 Set goals that are doable.
35 Reward yourself after each accomplishment
36 Make promises to yourself and others.
37 Remember: Your ultimate accountability lies in implementing what you learn.
38 Have a positive attitude.

The SharePoint Shepherd’s Guide for End Users, Instructor Led Training

For years now we’ve licensed instructor led training for SharePoint through our SharePoint Shepherd brand. Included in that training is some framing information that puts SharePoint’s value in context. This information helps folks understand what SharePoint can do and how it can help organizations accomplish their goals. For some of our customers we recorded module 1 so that they could optimize their employees’ time and they wouldn’t have to worry about finding time to teach it.

Today I’m releasing the first part of that module that we recorded on You Tube, so that anyone that wants to help their users and business leaders understand how SharePoint can be valuable can do that at no charge.

Of course, we’re always here to help you be successful with your SharePoint adoption, whether that’s end user training, adoption and engagement training and support, helping you deploy the infrastructure, or developing solutions that are built on top of SharePoint.



Book Review-Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse Engineer the Mind

It’s years now since I started my work on humor, jokes, and comedy. My introduction to standup comedy and my introduction to improvisation courses helped propel me forward in my speaking and my thinking. My post I am a Comedian
summarizes the work at that time. Since then, I posted two more book reviews that weren’t ready when I did my I am a Comedian post. However, there’s a book I started reading back then that I hadn’t managed to make my way through. The book Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse Engineer the Mind isn’t in the popular reading category. It’s MIT Press – so you know it’s going to have an academic component. It was difficult to read when compared to the comedy books about the conquests of some famous comedians. It was, in short, hard.

As a result, I read enough to get some key bits and put it aside to finish another day. Well, today is that day. I started getting intrigued with the concepts again as I read Spiritual Evolution and Play, both of which talking about how evolution shaped us. I wondered how humor was baked into the cocktail of our DNA and Inside Jokes had the answer.

Just because it’s hard reading doesn’t mean that I don’t recommend it – quite the contrary. I wish I had finished it sooner.

Darwin’s Funny Evolution

So how in the heck does humor work its way into our DNA? What possible use could there be for humor? As it turns out, the answer may be that it’s critical to our survival. The book Incognito was clear about the lies that our brain tells us – and how those lies are necessary to compensate for missing information. Our brains are designed to fill in missing pieces and make educated guesses to allow us to function with incomplete information. Working with incomplete information is, in fact, our default way of thinking.

Thinking, Fast and Slow is keen to tell us that our System 1 (normal operating system) lies to System 2 (higher order reasoning.) In short, we’re making assumptions all the time and we’re not even aware that we’re making the assumptions. Left unchecked, these systems of guesses and inferences without any basis in reality could lead us to some very disastrous consequences. As a result, evolution needed a mechanism for helping us identify errors in our thinking and resolve them. Humor is – it seems –that system. When we make a mistaken logical inference or we just plain gaff something, the discovery triggers in us a small reward. The same reward we get when solving a puzzle – something our ancestors would have needed to be rewarded for in order to survive. Solving a puzzle often meant the ability to acquire more food.

Laughing with Duchenne

As it turns out there are two relatively distinct forms of laughter. There’s what might be called genuine laughter, which has a set of associated involuntary muscle movements. The signature of genuine laughter is the brow furrowed and the corners of the mouth turned up strongly by pull from the orbicularis oculi and simulated (either consciously or not), in which the orbicular muscle plays little or no part. This was discovered by Benjamin Duchenne – and thus is called Duchenne laughter. (These involuntary facial movements reminds me of Paul Ekman’s work, see Social Engineering, Trust Me, and Emotional Awareness for more about Ekman’s work.)

The other kind of laughter, which is more aptly described as social laughter or non-Duchenne laughter, happens all the time. However, it happens not because someone finds something funny directly, but rather they are in a social situation where others are laughing. This kind of laughter may mean that we didn’t fall for the path the joke was leading us to – or we simply didn’t get it. Either way our laughter is less pure joy of discovery of our error and more about connecting to the crowd.

I can tell you from my brief and uneventful standup “career” that the size of the crowd (and how they’re sitting) has a huge impact on how funny people think jokes, lines, and tags are. Once you get a crowd going, if they’re big enough you could read Shakespeare to them and they’ll be rolling on the floor laughing. It’s substantially harder to play to a small room. Even the best comedians don’t hit all of their followers with every joke. Having enough people “get it” can prime the pump and get the crowd laughing.

Pain Relief

There are doctors like Patch Adams who institutionalized humor in medicine and saw impressive results. Humor has a way of elevating our body’s ability to heal itself. The mind-body connection, though mysterious, is real. However, humor can help to resolve more than just the physical pains and ailments of our body. Humor allows us a safe release of our emotional pain as well.

As I mentioned in my review of Chasing the Scream, addictions are the result of our emotional pains bubbling to the surface and taking the form of the addiction. Addictions aren’t pharmacologically based – they’re about our emotional and mental states and our need for release.

Most of the things that we do for pain relief can constitute an addiction. Whether it’s alcohol, drugs, sex, or something else, most of the things that we can do to temporarily blot out the pain we feel can result in an addiction, and comes with potential consequences like a hangover, a hospital visit, or a sexually transmitted disease.

The good news is that we may be able to accomplish the same effect of temporarily blotting out our pain by using humor. Going to a comedy club, watching a comedy program on Netflix, etc., may be a way to trick our brain into giving us some extra dopamine. There are very few reasons to not go to a comedy club. You’ll spend a few dollars on the tickets and drinks or food, but in the end you’ll generally have a humor-filled experience.

Humor, by its nature, is hard to become addicted to. You can only get so many new concepts and misdirections before you anticipate them and you have to find a new comic, a new genre, or decade. Thus, it might be a perfect way to put aside the pain for a while – but not too long.

The Perfect Date

After my divorce and before I wanted to find someone to spend the rest of my life with, I decided I needed to learn how to date again. I had 15 years in my first marriage so I hadn’t dated in a long time. I didn’t know how to do it. As a result, I decided I’d do some practice dating. I’d be upfront that I wasn’t looking for someone to get into a serious relationship with. I’d tell the ladies I was dating that I didn’t want a serious relationship. I just wanted to go out and have fun.

I fell into a pattern. There was an 8PM show at Morty’s Comedy Joint on Friday nights. I could take a date there, eat dinner and grab a drink – then watch the show. For me, the first beautiful thing was that I got to see what they thought was funny – and what they didn’t think was funny. I’d have limited time to talk with them before the show began so if it wasn’t going well, I could zone out on the date and focus on enjoying myself at the show. The second part that was great is that the show ended around 10PM – late enough to politely say goodbye if that was appropriate, and equally early enough to offer to go out for a drink or coffee.

What I didn’t know then – but know now – is that humor is used by females as a litmus test for intelligence. It’s really hard to fake the kind of intelligence it takes to “get” a joke. So while I was trying to figure out if we were compatible, my dates were sizing up my intelligence.

I didn’t realize how great the plan was. I only got to use it a few times before I met my wife Terri. Apparently, I laughed in all the right places, and so did she.

Mental Space is a Terrible Thing to Waste

In order to understand how humor works, it’s first necessary to understand how our brains work – at least as it pertains to how humor comes to be. The critical core of this is that we have mental space. That mental space allows us to build a picture or a model of the situation in our head. It’s this model in our heads that Gary Klein reported got so accurate as to be able to help fire captains be able to predict fires in Sources of Power. These mental spaces pop up instantly as we process the symbols of our language.

If I write about a red car, you’ll picture one in your head. If I speak about a polar bear, you’ll instantly consider a large white bear. I don’t have to say anything more and the picture pops up instantly in the mental space you’ve created for reading this post. You can’t not think about a horse of a different color if I mention it to you. (See Redirect for more about not thinking about something.)

Just in Time Spreading Activation

The primary premise of the book is that humor happens as a result of the artifacts of a brain that was designed by evolution to make rapid inferences. Said differently, to walk up Chris Argyris’ ladder of inference. (See Choice Theory and Hardwiring Happiness for more references to his work.) Because we’re all the time leaping to conclusions and we’re building mental models. We’re building the model just in time.

What I mean by this is that our brains don’t have the capacity to enumerate all of the possibilities and evaluate each one. We make an assumption and move on. The idea is that we’ll be able to correct for an error later if necessary. So we make decisions when we need to and not before. If I were to ask you what kind of car you saw when I mentioned the red car, you might answer with “I don’t know” because you didn’t bother to draw in the details of the car, or you might say that it was a specific kind of car that you want or that you own.

If you answered with a specific car, the chances are you did so because it took nearly no mental energy to fixate on that form of a red car. Because it’s already familiar to you, you just substituted it into the model. However, if you didn’t and you were pressed, you could probably transform a vague picture of a red car into a specific type and model of car – if you felt it relevant to the concept in your mental space. This is just in time processing at its finest. You don’t do anything until you have to.

Logical Inconsistencies

Our brains are amazing systems, but the brain is not without its flaws. Because of limited processing capacity, we have to process things for a time, then put them away in long-term storage for later retrieval. This works well for the most part; however, sometimes we file away two contradictory things, and they sit side-by-side in our long-term memory until they’re called to the surface and they’re brought up into the same mental space. The ideas that we are currently considering are considered active memories. It’s only active memories that we can challenge and compare to one another.

Because of the structural changes that happen in our brains, we’re really not able to remember things that happened to us before we were two years old. Despite this many of us have “memories” from times earlier than 2 years. (See Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology, if you are interested in the problems caused by this.) These “memories” are really beliefs that we formed about the way that things were back then from the stories that we heard. They can sit side-by-side with the reality of the situation until they’re exposed. Exposing that someone didn’t really go to an ice cream shop every single day may not be funny; however, exposing other misconceptions to the light of the day may be.

Idea Smack Down

Humor exists in the conflict of ideas. We assume one thing and we’re confronted with conflicting evidence that our assumption is not correct. The trick is that there’s a subtle area between an idea that’s so loosely held that we don’t care if it’s wrong, and one that we hold on to so strongly that we’re willing to fight to protect it even to the point of ignoring new data. (For more on our confirmation bias see Thinking, Fast and Slow, Sources of Power, Beyond Boundaries, Change or Die, and Who Am I?.) These ideas are called committed and uncommitted. With uncommitted ideas, we simply don’t care enough to allow the change to move us.

Inside of both committed and uncommitted beliefs lies how the belief was formed. It can be formed directly through our senses, through our perceptions, or through the inferences that we make. When our senses, our perceptions, or our inferences form contradictory committed beliefs, there is the potential for humor.

There are three key ways that the conflict between two ideas can be resolved:

  • Unresolved Conflict– The two ideas are simply filed away without resolution. This happens in cases when the beliefs may not be sufficiently committed beliefs.
  • Cooperative Resolution – New information, a different perspective, or a creative insight allows reconciliation between the ideas and the understanding that they are both right.
  • Uncooperative Resolution – One idea forces the other idea out. One of the beliefs survives, and the other doesn’t.

Humor’s only environment is one where ideas are clashing and colliding and are resolving conflict. In particular, humor happens during the resolution of a conflict – not when the conflict goes unresolved.

Blogging and Resolving Conflict

It might seem like this blog and resolving conflicts might be – well – in conflict. However, that’s not truth. The truth is that this blog exists to resolve conflicts. The blog is designed to prevent me from quietly shelving incompatible ideas by forcing me to reconcile and place ideas in the context of other works. For instance, I have a great deal of respect for Dr. Cloud and his work (see Boundaries and The Power of the Other
for examples). However, I believe that Dr. Cloud gets it wrong when he says that guilt is the barrier to growth. I believe Brené Brown has it right when she says that it’s shame, not guilt, that imprisons us.

This blog is a very active attempt on my part to connect concepts and ideas from different places and assess whether they’re in conflict or in agreement, and, if they’re in conflict, what I’ll do to resolve the conflict. In the case above, the solution was to realize that Dr. Cloud’s words just weren’t precise. (A new view that allowed both to be right.)

Watershed Events

Recently I was at a taping for America’s Generations by Chuck Underwood. Chuck’s primary thesis is that each of the generations are shaped by the events of their childhood (which he defines as prior to graduation from high school). The idea is that, by and large, our values are driven by watershed moments that occurred as we were growing and forming what it means to be us. From the Challenger Disaster to the Kent State Shootings to putting a man on the moon, we collectively experienced the same general set of events, and this created in us a similar set of values.

One form of humor, however, extracts these common points in time and seeks to connect us to the craziness of the event. It seeks to have us look at them differently. Sometimes if you’re sitting in an open-mic night, which is the standup comic equivalent of a dress rehearsal, you’ll hear a comic try a joke about a recent event, and when he receives a boo instead of laughter, he’ll ask, “Too soon?” In this lies the awareness that shared events are great fodder for humor.

Sometimes recent events are too emotionally charged for people to experience the humor in them. It takes time to distance oneself from the event before the joke can be processed without the internal shame of “how could I think that?” From a humor standpoint, the balancing factor is that the event has to remain memorable. As I write this, Jarred Fogle, the disgraced Subway spokesperson, is still in the news. His problems are memorable, but five or ten years from now they may not be so memorable. There’s a fine line between too soon and too late.

Common Experiences

Jerry Seinfeld made a sitcom about nothing. Seinfeld was much heralded as “a show about nothing”. However, that’s not exactly true. It wasn’t a show about nothing, it was a show about everything. It was a show about finding humor in daily life, in seeing the situations around us as strange and humorous. It was a show about the common experiences that we all have. It’s in the heart of all comedy – in our ability to create compressed stories that allow us to respond to false beliefs that we have in the things that we do.

Relationship to Play

I started this post acknowledging that the drive to finish it was through the interest that I regained through Spiritual Evolution and Play. My interest was in how humor came to be entangled in our DNA, and how play and humor were related. Play is about taking appropriately risky behaviors in the service of improving skills and building bonds. Humor is about resolving errors in our processing and in building bonding. It’s the relationship that both have toward bonding us together that is particularly interesting.

Inside Jokes didn’t resolve the relationship between humor in play. It did, however, remind me that much of what we do is really the result of survival skills. We needed ways to bond with one another to make us whole. We need connection to make us whole. (See The Psychology of Hope for more on our need for connection.) Our behaviors may be more connected to what we need to survive than we realize.


In How Children Succeed, Paul Tough talks about ACE and how this triggers hyper reactivity in the HPA, which makes focus difficult. The Rise of Superman talks about how flow shuts down our inner critic – and how this is necessary for the ability to successfully enter and maintain flow. Flow is such a productive state that people unable to enter it will feel like they’re unable to keep up.

Sometimes with jokes, it’s necessary to shut down our inner critic. If you want to get Inside Jokes, maybe it’s time that you let go, relax and see if you can find some states of inner conflict that your critic can let go of.


Announcing: Four Microsoft Project Courses Available on RedVector

One of the projects that I completed this year was the creation of four Microsoft Project courses. These courses cover both Microsoft Project 2013 and Microsoft Project 2016 at the Beginner and Intermediate levels. You can navigate to all four of the courses from my author page on Red Vector.


Book Review-House of Cards: Psychology and Psychotherapy Built on Myth

What would you do if you worked in a profession that ignored its own best practices? What if your industry claimed to be able to do things that they simply couldn’t do? How could you move a profession forward when you knew that most of your colleagues weren’t in the know? I’m not talking about one of my professions, software development, instead I’m talking about psychology and the spot that Robyn Dawes found himself in. (Most software developers haven’t bothered to pick up a single book on software development theory or practices.) Dawes’ response as a concerned professional and an educator was to focus on what he knew is right in his classrooms and to write a book about the problems with his industry – House of Cards: Psychology and Psychotherapy Built on Myth.

I’ve personally seen the good and the bad of psychology. I’ve reviewed The Heart and Soul of Change which focuses on what works in psychotherapy. I’ve also seen the dark side as I reviewed The Cult of Personality Testing and Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology.
I believe, as Dawes does, that there are ways to help people through psychology; but I also understand that the difference in efficacy between those who are substantially trained and have years of clinical experience compared those who are only minimally trained is trivial. In short, even though we have built a profession around psychology, it’s not a profession whose techniques drive performance forward – at least not yet.

Crystal Balls

The greatest challenges to psychology don’t come from therapy. They don’t come from how the profession helps people – though, as mentioned above, the efficacy differences are minimal. Where the greatest challenges come from is when psychology oversteps the bounds of what is known and what isn’t known. Despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, “psychology experts” testify about the future behaviors of subjects. They state that they know how people will behave in the future even though the research proves this isn’t possible.

Perhaps they have the magical crystal ball that can see into the future, and they’re hiding their prize possession, cloaking it in the mysticism of psychology. In truth, there is no absolute predictor. Anyone that states that they know with certainty the future behavior of another person is a liar. They’re either lying to themselves and others or they’re just lying to others.

Though Dawes goes into length about the problems with the projective techniques that many psychologists use to make these predictions, I won’t reiterate the problems with projective tests – I’ve got rather complete coverage of these problems in The Cult of Personality Testing.

However, one thing that’s important is discussing the limits of identifying personality types. Even comprehensive systems of cataloging values and their relative importance, such as Reiss’ system covered in Who am I? and The Normal Personality, don’t have the predictive power. Paul Ekman explains in his work with micro expressions that you can identify the emotion but not the cause. (See Emotional Awareness for more on Paul Ekman’s work.)

In other words, even the best models for people – either based on values or on observable phenomena – aren’t able to predict behavior in the future. The reality is that we all have scars from our past. We have places of brokenness. No tool, conversation, or therapy can discover all of these wounds. We can’t even discover these wounds ourselves. We have to simply live life and confront our wounds as they surface. When the wound is triggered, the person will seek to relieve that pain – often unconsciously. However, stating what an alcoholic will do, whether they will take a drink or call a friend when they’re struggling is just a guess., It’s not a guess that anyone should take seriously.


Every state has been licensing psychologists since the 1970s. The fundamental idea being that the licensing procedure protects the public from charlatans and con men who would trick them out of their money and provide no value. The requirements are generally high: a doctorate degree and years working with a licensed provider. The model resembles the medical model in that there is a sort of residency (supervisory period) but that’s where the similarity ends. There’s scant evidence that the residency (supervisory period) is useful.

Instead of protecting the public and insisting that professionals behave in ways that are consistent with best practices, professionals are allowed to continue to utilize techniques which have been repeatedly disproven. The licensing process serves to create a barrier to entry, but it doesn’t serve as a way of ensuring a level of performance.

I was having a conversation with a psychologist friend some years ago, when I shared with him that I enjoyed being of help to others, and that I was lightly considering the idea of becoming a licensed psychologist. His advice: “Don’t do it.” When I probed on the issue, I realized that he didn’t feel like his peers did anything with the licensing process except make it difficult. This, he felt, was to protect their revenues. His suggestion was that I pursue “coaching”. Dawes points out that you can’t prevent people from providing assistance to others for a fee, so consulting and coaching are always an option.

Coaching, as it turns out, is a very viable alternative. In fact, another friend who was previously licensed marriage and family counselor but decided to let his license lapse has become a coach – because it’s easier. The only disadvantage to not being licensed? You can’t accept payments from third party payers, including insurance and the government. In most cases, this isn’t a kind of payment that psychologists want even though it can be lucrative.

To reform psychology, it seems like it may be necessary to change the licensing procedure from the ground up, to require that psychologists only use research-supported techniques, or tell their clients when they’re not. As it turns out, I’ve read the ethical guidelines from the American Psychological Association (APA). While their standards state these things, it appears that, in practice, their members and the licensed psychologists in each state are rarely held to these standards.

Licensing as a Minimum Bar

The key to licensing is the same key as to certifications with which I’ve had a lot of experience. A certification is most simply defined as “meets a standard.” The question that should be in everyone’s mind is, what standard are they meeting? In truth, standards for IT tests are based on a group of purported “experts” – some of which, I can assure you through my direct experience, are not – who create the desired skill set. The next step after the skills identification is question writing. When this is done, a beta testing period is created. During this beta period, candidates complete the test without receiving their scores immediately.

Psychometricians then process the data and eliminate questions that don’t meet standards for consistency – either because the supposed right answer doesn’t match the answers given by the most highly qualified candidates or the highly qualified candidates didn’t get it right often. Then the passing score – and thus the standard for the test – are set using psychometric methods designed to provide a reasonable pass/fail rate. Ultimately this process is designed to establish the minimum bar for what certified professionals must know.

The hidden challenge here is that it’s an average standard across all of the testing objectives. There may be certain areas where the candidate has zero skills. This is particularly common when testing scopes are set too broadly.

The reality of IT certification testing, which I’m familiar with, is that it’s far more predictive of the desired skills than the kinds of tests created for state licensure. That’s because of the much larger pool of candidates that can be drawn across the country than could possibly be pulled for the psychologists in a single state. After all requirements for taking a beta test would be the same high requirements of licensure.

While all certifications and licensing has some value, it’s unclear how one could determine what the minimum bar is that the licensure is measuring.

Learning and Experience

What do stock traders, politicians and psychologists have in common? The fact that getting good, reliable feedback about their solutions is very hard. This lack of good feedback creates an illusion of good practice where none exists. It creates the illusion that you’ve discovered a way to help folks solve a problem, when differences in performance in any of these categories is minimal and random.

The key problem with psychologists isn’t that they’re not good people. The key problem is that the dynamics of the environment make it hard for them to become better. By interrupting the feedback cycle that we all need in order to learn, they’re losing their ability to improve their practice. Because psychological services are unique, and monitoring would be required to have others improve their practice, and such monitoring is difficult and can interfere with the therapeutic effects, very little is done. (See The Heart and Soul of Change for the relative impact of patient-therapist alliance.)

The other barrier to learning (as discussed in Peak) is that there isn’t a clear set of standards as to what constitutes the principles of practice. With bad feedback cycles and a lack of clearly defined principles of practice, psychology is missing the requirements necessary to get better.

American Psychological Association

The APA is the functional equivalent of the American Bar Association (ABA) for lawyers. Lawyers are admitted to the bar in each state by demonstrating professional competency, and in order to practice in the state they must be a member. While states don’t necessarily require APA membership to be a licensed psychologist, in most states the ethical standards that are used are the standards of the APA.

The APA has a history of well-intended, visionary leaders who had the desire of making help available to everyone. This well-intentioned interests poured fuel on the self-help movement, as was discussed in Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology. Through the years, there have been leaders who have tried to elevate the practice of psychology through the power of the organization. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been enough attention to the transfer of knowledge from the researchers who are doing research about efficacy of treatments and the practitioners who are seeing patients.

A more challenging concern with the organization is that it seems unable (or unwilling) to ensure the standards of practice are being met.

Statistical Probability

Everyone needs to feel like they’re unique and different. That in some way they’re special. This is a part of our need for acceptance: the balance between being similar enough to be liked and different enough to be special. This desire to be special means that we’re often pushed into believing that the statistical norms don’t apply to us. At some level that’s true. Averaging people tends to eliminate their differences, which can be a bad thing when it leads to unexpected results (see The Black Swan.) However, from the other perspective it allows us to say what works for most people in most situations.

The value of using statistics to record probability is that it allows us to know what seems to work and what doesn’t seem to work in most cases. In short, it allows treatments to be identified as useful or not. Studies have proven that psychologists who rely upon the statistical probabilities of treatments, and who treat patients in the manner which is statistically most likely to succeed, do in fact get better outcomes.

Despite claims to the contrary by experienced psychologists, their predictive capabilities are limited by their imperfect and skewed experience with poor feedback, and as a result, their results with patients are poorer than if they trusted the statistics and went with them.

As a pilot, I’m trained to believe my instruments even when my feelings and beliefs are different. Obviously, I have to cross check instruments to make sure there is no error; however, I’ve learned to trust my instruments more than I’ve learned to trust myself. Most psychologists haven’t been taught this important lesson.

Alleviating Distress

Psychology is supposed to be about eliminating mental distress. However, the evidence points to greater distress today than there was in the past. In fact, according to Leading from the Emerging Future, suicide rates in the last 45 years are up 60%. Other statistics are equally concerning. If psychology is effective at reducing mental destress, at the very least we know that its current levels of efficacy aren’t sufficient.

We know from studies that there is some level of effect conveyed by psychological help, though the effect size still appears to be relatively limited. As House of Cards says “If treated, a cold will go away in seven days, whereas if left alone, it will last a week.” In other words, there seems to be little impact on treating a cold. Many of the psychological symptoms that people come in to seek help with have similar profiles.

The Necessity of Guilt

In Changes that Heal, Dr. Cloud asserts that guilt is a major barrier to growth. There I disagreed, and since then I’ve spoken about the difference between guilt and shame while discussing Brené Brown’s work. (See The Gifts of Imperfection, Daring Greatly, and Rising Strong (Part 1 & Part 2) In short, shame is “I am bad”, and guilt is “I have done bad”.

Dawes makes a point that a society without guilt (as some people propose would be good) would be a society of psychopaths. If we didn’t have any guilt for our actions, how would we maintain the standards of society? If we felt no pangs of pain, because we didn’t feel guilty about the things that we’ve done or the people we’re harmed, we’d do only what is good for us – and would have the behavior of a psychopath.

The Psychology of Victimization

Dawes makes the point that much of what is done to convince people that they’ve been abused through intensive therapy trying to recover these memories (which can’t be recovered) only creates the perception that they were abused, whether that is truth or not. Further, he indicates that, once people believe they’ve been abused, they’ll behave as if they have been abused even if they never were.

The challenge with this is that the focus on the abuse is the victim component. This has the effect of immobilizing people and preventing them from taking action. I’ve discussed before how problematic victimhood is. (See Boundaries, Beyond Boundaries, Daring Greatly and Change or Die.)

Only Rational Thought Can Be Responsible

Perhaps the problem is that psychology hasn’t decided what it’s doing yet. I’ve stated that I love the Rider-Elephant-Path model to describe the relationship between emotional and rational components of our thinking. (See The Happiness Hypothesis and Switch for more on the model.) However, psychology hasn’t figured out how to address the periods when the elephant is in control. Whether it’s called irresistible impulses or temporary insanity, there are places where psychology hasn’t figured out what to do. Maybe you can get a clearer picture if you read House of Cards.


Quote of the Day Web Part for SharePoint and Office 365

A client of mine wanted a quote of the day web part on their Intranet – with two twists. First, they’re on Office 365, so they had to use something out of the box. No custom code. Second, they wanted the quote to be pretty – that means having an image.

After some work I located a feed from TheySaidSo. Their images feed is available at All I needed to do was plug this into the SharePoint RSS Viewer and set a few options.

I set the feed limit to 1 and checked the box to show both the feed title and description (see below).

When I did this, I got the image from the feed. I decided to do a few enhancements to the XSLT that the web part uses to display the image, and ultimately ended up with what you see here:

The image and the text of the quote are provided by the feed. Pretty cool and pretty easy.

If you want my .Webpart file so you can import this into your SharePoint environment, it’s available here (it’s in the ZIP file).

If you don’t know how to use a .webpart file, you might want to check out The SharePoint Shepherd’s Guide for End Users.


Book Review-The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable

As I began reading The Black Swan, my wife wondered if the black swan was a dancer in swan lake. I’ll assure you, my reading hasn’t taken a turn into classical dancing. Instead, I’ve become intrigued by interesting events. Most of the time black swans are what the subtitle says: highly improbable. So The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable is about the random events that aren’t probable, but have a major impact on the world – or your world. Those impacts can be positive or negative.

I wanted to learn more so that I could go black swan hunting. I wanted to go looking for black swans that I might be able to domesticate. I want to bring the positive impacts of the highly improbable to my world. However, before I could get to hunting black swans, I had to understand more about them.

Predicting the Unpredictable

A black swan, as Taleb defines it, is an unpredictable event. They are — by definition, unpredictable. It can’t be predicted. It’s not just difficult to predict, it’s impossible to predict. We’ve got all sorts of models which are designed to predict random events, but truly random events can’t be predicted – by definition. We can only predict pseudo-random events, and only when we know the genesis of the pseudo-randomness.

Inherent to accepting black swans is accepting that you will never be able to predict them. They’ll come in ways and at times that you’ll never expect. Our only choice is to raise our awareness so that we can discover them sooner and respond quicker. (I’m paraphrasing Richard Moon here; I quoted him in my post The Inner Game of Dialogue about the book Dialogue: The Art of Thinking Together).

Thinking for Survival

Most of our human existence, we’ve been focused on the short-term. We worried about water today, food tomorrow, shelter for the winter. We’ve been focused on our day-to-day existence enough that we didn’t have any opportunity to think towards the future. As humans have evolved, we’ve managed to create crops, and worked towards more planning and less day-to-day sustenance.

We’re continuing to seek ways to ensure our long-term survival. In the evolutionary blink of an eye, we’ve moved towards long-term planning. It’s in this long-term planning that we’ve begun to try to predict the future so that we could plan into the future. We’ve moved away from living hand-to-mouth.

We’ve become more than just a bit arrogant that we’re conquering our world by domesticating animals, and by leveraging the power of atomic energy to unleash massive destruction or to drive forward commerce. We believe that we have the ability to see the future and predict what will happen, despite nearly continuous evidence to the contrary.

Living in Indiana, I’ve several times noted that the state went bankrupt shortly after working on the canal system. The “Crossroads of America”, as Indiana is called, is a place where commerce transits. State leaders believed that a canal system would speed the transportation of goods through the state. Of course, this was correct. However, what wasn’t correct was that canals were going to remain the fastest (and cheapest) way to transport goods. Along came the railroad, and in an incredibly short time, everything was transported by rail and not by canal. (Examples of where I’ve mentioned this are The Challenger Sale
Extraordinary Minds.)

This is just one of millions of examples of how we can’t predict the future or the things that will disrupt our plans. So while we’ve started making our lives better through our thinking, we’re invariably wrong about the accuracy of our predictions. (See Thinking, Fast and Slow, Incognito, and Stumbling on Happiness for more on the accuracy of our predictions.)

Ignoring Black Swans

So what happens when you ignore black swans? Well, Everett Rogers described the folks that try as “laggards” in his book Diffusion of Innovations. Why is that? When innovations came to farming – as they did repeatedly during the middle of the 20th century – some farmers embraced the changes and tried to take advantage of the innovations, and others tried to ignore them. During the period from 1950 to 1970, the number of people fed per farmer moved from 14 to 47 – a more than threefold increase in the output of farmers. That’s great for the farmers who were on top of the innovations. However, it was a problem for those who didn’t keep pace.

From 1960-1970, the average price per bushel of wheat dropped from 1.76 to 1.33 – roughly 25% in 10 years. The effects of supply and demand pushed the price lower as there was a greater supply from more effective farmers. To the laggard, whose production wasn’t increasing, that means a 25% drop in income in 10 years.

Iowa farmers applied innovations and the results of others’ hard work to increase their yield and improve their ability to survive downturns. In fact, this period of rapid growth in farming created another unexpected (or at least partially unexpected) effect. Farmers had built an expectation of increasing production. When production sagged, and the market prices continued to settle in the 1980s, we saw a rise in foreclosures on farms. This trend spun songs like Rain on the Scarecrow and the rise of Farm Aid. We’ve continued to increase production, so now we’re feeding hundreds of people per farmer, but some of that is due to consolidation.

While earlier years had lower production numbers, the variability was very tight – so 30% drops in year-over-year production wasn’t an expected event. We know from systems thinking that, as you increase output, you reduce the number of stabilizing influences, and therefore create more variability. (See Thinking in Systems for more.) However, no one had ever seen such large variability in output before.

Prepared for Everything

The Boy Scout motto is “Be Prepared.” “Preppers” are preparing for the end of the world as we know it. Whether it’s a nuclear winter, a zombie apocalypse, or anarchy, they want to be ready for it. It means growing your own food and having stocks of anything you can’t produce yourself, including guns, ammunition, and the tools to reload rounds. Here’s the problem, you can’t be prepared for everything. Take a prepper and give them a scenario that’s never happened before and they quite literally can’t prepare for it.

Take the zombie apocalypse. How do you know how you’ll be able to defend your family? At what rate will the zombies come? If you shoot them, will they recover or not? (I mean heck, they’re already dead – it’s not like you can kill something that’s dead.) So, no matter what scenario that has never happened before, there will be some level of uncertainty as to what rules will and won’t apply. After all, during the riots in LA after the Rodney King verdict, people still parked inside the lines in parking lots – some rules are kept even in anarchy.

Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

Many years ago, before the habit of writing a book review for most of the books that I read, I read the book Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics. After starting to write book reviews, I read How to Measure Anything. They’re neither one the hard-hitting statistical theory books that I might have to read for a college course in statistics, but they do lay out the basic foundations. I was always impressed at the elegance of the arguments. How to Measure Anything was particularly quick to point out that in statistics it’s very quick to reach a confidence range even with only a few data points. I found this very interesting and somewhat disturbing.

The arguments for things like Fermi estimates – where we can guess at the answers and be mostly right if we have enough people and we have experience with the answers—are valid. There are equally valid conserns, as the Drake Equation – which “calculates” the probability of life on other planets – points out. When we don’t have sufficient experience, there’s no converging on a solution. This is the heart of the black swan problem. How much experience is “enough” experience?

On September 10th, 2001 the probability of someone hijacking a plane and crashing it into a building to cause a catastrophic fault was effectively nil given what we knew. It had never been done before. No one had ever hijacked a plane and run it into a skyscraper. However, by the end of the horrific day that was September 11, 2001, we knew that someone hijacking a plane and crashing it into a building was not just possible, but had been done. We clearly didn’t have enough knowledge of terrorist activities on September 10th to accurately predict the future. That’s the point. You can’t predict a black swan – an unpredictable event.

Taleb was in the fortunate position of having just published Fooled by Randomness one week before the event of 9/11. He received phone calls and emails wondering how he had predicted the event. He hadn’t predicted it. He had devised a thought experiment that unfortunately coincided with an actual event that happened shortly after publishing. Hindsight made it appear that he had great insight into the event, when in reality it was just random happenstance.

Unlike the pristine bell curves and clean mathematics of statistics, the real world is filled with what Mandelbrot would call “roughness.” That is, the real world is so complex that we cannot see its complexity. We can’t say what constitutes enough evidence about the possible outcomes, because we’ve not seen them all. (See Fractal Along the Edges for more about Mandelbrot and roughness.)

What it Takes to Be Successful

Over the last few years, I’ve considered what it takes to be successful. There are the ideas of Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers (borrowed from Anders Ericsson – whose new book Peak I just reviewed) that it takes 10,000 hours of practice (though Ericsson never said this). At one level, the answer is to get into flow (See Flow and Finding Flow) and use that as the mechanism driving continuous improvement (See The Rise of Superman). This is the core of the Protestant work ethic. In essence, “work hard and God will reward you”.

However, the more I look at great leaders, the more I realize that the single biggest factor in their success isn’t inside of their control. The single biggest factor is luck. That is, a set of circumstances got created around them that they took advantage of, and the result was phenomenal success. To be clear, I’m not saying that they didn’t work to develop skills, they didn’t take risks, and they don’t deserve success. I’m saying that the key ingredient, and the one which they had no control over, was luck. There are pithy quotes about “luck is the residue of preparation” (Jack Youngblood) and “chance favors the prepared mind” (Louis Pasteur). However, these quotes seem empty and hollow next to the randomness that defines life.

I’m more and more impressed by the people that I meet who live in relative obscurity but who are just as wise as, and perhaps more powerful than, some of the people who have become famous for their work. I’m reminded of the number of people who became famous posthumously. I think that I’ve come to realize that some of the black swans are welcome, if not unexpected, guests. They’re the “luck” that moves people from the category of relative obscurity to the spotlight.

I often say to my friends that I don’t know what doors God is going to open, but I’m going to put my running shoes on while I wait. That is, I believe that there is truth in the pithy quotes in that you have to be prepared to take advantage of the lucky breaks that we get.

How Black Swans Change Your Course

If you believe that you can map out the course of your life from beginning to end without worrying about black swans or unexpected circumstances, then I wish you luck. The famous and successful folks I’ve spoken with or whose works I read have admitted that their best laid plans haven’t led them to where they are. They’re where they are by taking advantage of the opportunities in front of them. (Some of the most direct writing about this is in Extreme Productivity.)

If you look at my career – at its current state – it’s shaped substantially by Microsoft SharePoint. My consulting is focused around the product, though this wasn’t always the case. I did infrastructure consulting as well as software development before I started getting more focused on SharePoint. Even today, when my engagements are less about the technology and more about the organization, can be attributed to my experience with implementing SharePoint in technically beautiful ways, while also recognizing that adoption, training, and most importantly organizational change wasn’t done properly. That led me to my interest in organizational development, and how to get organizations to be more effective.

Johari Window

Black swans come through a specific spot in a window – the Johari window. It’s a technique to help people better understand themselves and others. It is primarily used in the context of helping someone – or a team – get better. On one dimension, there are others, and their “known” and “unknown”. The other dimension is self, again with known and unknown. So things that are known to others but not you are a blind spot. However, more interesting in this context, is that there is a spot where neither you nor others know about something. It’s an unknown-unknown. It’s a black swan.

If no one knows something, then how can it be predictable?


I’ve been fascinated by the hydrodynamics of locks. They’re amazing feats of engineering. It’s interesting to see how boats are lifted and lowered by the power of water flowing from areas of higher potential energy to areas of lower potential energy.

Locks represent the place of discontinuity for the water. On one side it’s higher, and on the other it’s lower. In essence the water takes a jump – like a waterfall, but without the potentially disastrous effects of hitting the rocks.

We’re lulled into a sense of complacency that all things should be continuous. As you add more milk to the glass, it slowly increases. It doesn’t stay at one state and suddenly jump to full. However, the discontinuity we see is what a black swan does. Things are one way, then the next moment they’re radically different.

In Demand, there’s a discussion of Zip cars, and how membership jumped dramatically when the walk to get to a car was five minutes instead of ten minutes. This is a discontinuity. At one level of distance there are few subscriptions, and on the other level there are many.

Systems and Swans

Black swans are somewhat expected and they’re expected to be unexpected. In systems thinking (see Thinking in Systems), when you increase output you do so by reducing stocks (or buffers) and counterbalancing looks that help to recover the system to the “normal” state. The result is greater efficiency but less resiliency. That is, the system takes longer to recover from an imbalance, or it will suffer a catastrophic failure rather than return to the normal state.

Civilian-use airplanes are designed with something called dynamic stability. That means, all things being equal, they’ll try to go in a straight line, and generally speaking they’ll be in a slight climb. This is built into the design of the plane. It should naturally correct for a small amount of tilt to one side or the other, and should respond well to the pilot trying to obtain a straight and level flight. The pilot shouldn’t have to fight to get these relatively common effects. This is good because it reduces the pilot’s burden, and improves resilience. However, dynamic stability comes at a cost. The cost is that the plane isn’t 100% efficient going through the air.

Compare this with the newer aircraft that have been designed for military use, which have dynamic instability. That is, they don’t want to do a straight and level flight. It’s sort of like trying to balance on the top of a ball. The benefit of these designs is better performance characteristics of the aircraft are traded for more control inputs. The compensating system that is in place, which allows these aircraft to be flown (and even to do vertical takeoff), is that the control systems are very sophisticated. They differentiate between the unprovoked changes in the aircraft attitude, and those which are in response to the pilot’s controls. The systems are making minute changes to the actual control surfaces much faster than a pilot could possibly respond to create an overall aircraft that is still flyable.

I’ve seen some truly amazing control system compensations after a pilot lost a wing or had other substantial damage to the aircraft. It’s these scenes that make you wonder if the control systems managed to defy the laws of aerodynamics. However, what I haven’t seen – but know it happens – is a control system failure that leads to the loss of the aircraft. Whenever we try to reach the edge of performance, we interact with complicated systems, and ultimately we have very little ability to predict the outcomes. (See Diffusion of Innovations for our inability to predict the impact of an innovation.)

The problem with systems is that we rarely fully understand them and the various feedback loops that keep the system operational – even under extreme circumstances. So it’s one thing to talk about how we’re reducing resilience by increasing output because we’re removing or reengineering some of the feedback loops, but quite another to recognize that, the more that we optimize systems, the more likely it is that we’ll have an unexpected problem.

Consider for a moment the manufacturing shift to “just in time” inventory. This allows the buffers (stocks) of parts to be near zero by assuming predictability in the supply chain. The idea is that, if you know how much you’re going to consume (your daily usage), and you know how long it takes for a vendor to get you more (lag time), you can set the system up so that the materials arrive right as you need them. This works great as a way to reduce the cost of storage of the raw materials and lower capital requirements (due to the lower stocks of raw materials). This is a good thing – right up to the point where it isn’t.

In this same scenario, what happens when the supplier is late? Instead of depleting inventory, the entire production line shuts down waiting on the parts. My brother flew more than one box of parts in a charter aircraft just to keep production lines going.

Though the impact isn’t a black swan – because it can be predicted and can be planned for –it’s the unknown variants of this problem that we get when we tinker with systems that create new black swans.

Black Swan Hunting

For me, I like to go black swan hunting. Sure, I don’t find many. It feels like I fail a lot, but I’m in good company. The idea of an electric light was a black swan – a game-changing, discontinuity-generating discovery. That’s why I do things like the child safety cards that Terri and I created in our Kin-to-Kid Connection brand of products. That’s why we’re working on a handwashing kit. That’s why we’re (mostly she is) doing healthcare-associated infection consulting. That’s why I experiment with my solar powered mini-barn.

The heart of black swan hunting is trying new things. Whether it’s an experience that’s new to you that others have done, or something that no one has ever done, it’s in these explorations of new space that you find black swans.

Innovating and Black Swans

Saying I’m hunting black swans is a bit of a misnomer. I’m not looking for the negative events. I’m looking for the positive ones. The positive ones are, in my opinion, almost always an innovation. The negative black swans may be innovations too – but other people’s innovations – or they can be a collapse or discontinuity in the system. (See above)

In systems thinking, there’s the idea of bounded reality, which states the actors of the system function only to the level which they’re aware of their situation. It’s this bounded reality that leads to the problems like the Tragedy of Commons. Any system has the possibility of overconsuming the stock resources necessary to generate the new flow. (Again, see Thinking in Systems.)

Expecting and Accepting the Unpredictable

Taleb comments in a few places that folks find his perspective unique. On the one hand, he’s encouraging us to realize that there are unpredictable events that are coming, and on the other hand, he seems relatively unfazed by this reality. He doesn’t experience the persistent sense of paranoia that some might expect.

I believe the expectation that, if you acknowledge that there are unpredictable events, then you should be always fearful misses an important part of being happy. That is, it does no good to worry about things that you can’t change. If you can’t change it, prepare for it, or prevent it, why worry?

I’m not talking about ignoring the black swans once they appear. I’m not talking about denial. I’m talking about a decision to not fret about those things which aren’t under your control. There is a peace that comes through acceptance that you can’t be prepared for everything. All you can do is what you can do. This is about accepting your limitations and knowing that there are some events for which you’ll only have the chance to respond. The serenity prayer is keen to call us to accept the things we cannot change.

So we have to accept that black swan events do happen. We have to accept that we cannot fully prepare for them. However, if you want to understand more about how they function and the foolishness which is our belief in our predictions, a good place to start is by reading The Black Swan.

Card Sorting Your Way to Meaningful Metadata V4

Recording: Card Sorting Your Way to Meaningful Metadata

30 days ago I had the pleasure of delivering my talk “Card Sorting Your Way to Meaningful Metadata” for ITUnity. If you’d like to view the prerecorded portion of this talk, you can find it on YouTube at