Book Review-Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions

It’s not unusual to perceive others as irrational. We can’t make sense of what other people do while assuming that we ourselves are completely rational. However, Dan Ariely points out in Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions that, not only are we, too, irrational, we’re predictably irrational. We make the same mistakes repeatedly. We don’t practice rational decision-making, we practice irrational decision-making.

Rational Decision Making

Gary Klein shares his studies of fire captains in Sources of Power and Seeing What Others Don’t, and how we internalize how things work and how they fit together. More important, he explains that we can’t articulate what we know about how we make our decisions, because they just seem to come to us. (This fits with knowledge management and the concept of tacit rather than explicit knowledge. See Lost Knowledge and The New Edge in Knowledge for more on tacit knowledge.)

However, Klein’s work is on how our “gut” and how our intuition works – not how it gets in the way of rational decision-making. He only acknowledges that intuition works before rational decision-making can be engaged. Rational decision-making is an expensive process and one that we try to avoid if we can. In fact, we try to avoid any difficult comparison. We prefer easy, relative comparisons because, well, they’re easy.

Everything is Relative

The actual size of your home or your actual salary is irrelevant – mostly. What matters for your happiness is how your home stacks up to your friend group. If your salary is larger than your sister-in-law’s husband, you’ll probably feel relatively good about your salary – that is, unless your sister-in-law’s husband is a bum and there’s no comparison. Our salary is good when it exceeds others’. Our marriage is good when it seems to show more love.

It turns out that every evaluation is a relative evaluation. We don’t truly evaluate things in absolute terms. Ariely mirrors what Kahneman says in Thinking, Fast and Slow that we get more value from our first dollar of gain than the second – and so on. On the loss side, which we feel more acutely, the first dollar lost is more painful than the second dollar lost. Losing a dollar – or a million – should be the same whether it’s the first or the fifth, but that’s not what happens with humans. We find familiarity less rewarding and less depressing than newness.

From the perspective of trying to be a “choice architect” (in the words of Nudge), this is important because it means that we can encourage people to purchase the product or services that we want them to purchase by offering them a slightly less attractive option that’s easy to compare to the option we want them to buy.

There’s an example about The Economist, where the Internet-only option was priced at $69 per year, the print was priced at $125 per year – and both were priced at the same $125 per year. This made the “both” option an easy sell. However, was it really a better deal than the Internet-only option if the subscriber would never open a single printed issue? No, not from a logical point of view. However, from a choice point of view it was a brilliant way of keeping print alive for a while longer.

Arbitrary Coherence

But who set the price for the subscription in the first place? Somewhere, somehow, all printed magazine subscriptions ended up being the same price. All the subscriptions that you buy tended to be in a range of prices. Most books that you buy tend to be in a relatively small range of prices. We don’t expect to pay more than about $35 for a book. Some mass-market books can be $10 or less but, excepting trade books and textbooks for class, that’s what we expect to pay for a book.

Given that the cost to print a book is somewhere between $1 and $10 depending upon size, quantity, etc., is there a formula to get to the sales price of the book? The answer is no. Pricing is set based on its anticipated demand and the price which will make the publisher and, secondarily, the author the most money.

The price of books is an example of arbitrary coherence. Once we’ve set our expectations with the price of a book, we tend to expect that the pricing will stay relatively the same over time. In the case of books, professional and textbooks are the exception. They’re seen differently and have a different “set point” of expectations.

We might expect to pay $100 or more for a professional book or a technical book. Are the production costs different? Not really. Are the development costs different? Not in most cases. Interestingly, the real difference is in the perceived marketability and longevity. Professional books have a smaller market. Textbooks have a much shorter longevity because of the expectations that they be updated frequently.

We may all grumble at having to pay $100 for a textbook or a professional book – but we still do it, because we’ve been conditioned to expect that this is what we do.

Breaking Coherence

The big implication of coherence is how to break it. The big game is how do you charge $5 for a cup of coffee instead of $1? The answer lies in our ability to distinguish the experiences sufficiently, such that the experience of a $5 coffee doesn’t feel like the same experience as a $1 coffee. By changing how the experience feels and our frame of reference, we break coherence and create a new standard that we’re willing to pay and an experience we desire.

Starbucks is famous for its ability to create an experience that we’re willing to pay $5 for. Is the coffee that much better? That’s certainly debatable. But few would argue that there’s an experience to a coffee house – whether it’s Starbucks or not. We’ll pay once for that experience. And then our neural shortcuts kick in and we’ll do it again.

Because we’re constantly seeking a shortcut, we’re always looking to simplify the problem. When we’re faced with the need for a shot of caffeine in a hot suspension fluid like coffee, we’ll ask ourselves what will work rather than what is most cost-effective. We ask the question where can we get it. We’ll evaluate what we’ve done in the past, and since we’ve tried Starbucks before, it’s an acceptable option.

So luring people in the door for their first cup works because, whether you make money on the first cup or not, a large majority are likely to come back.

Coherence, and breaking it, doesn’t just work in the low-cost world of coffee; it works in the price of priceless jewels. Literally, black pearls had no value before leveraged by an exclusive jeweler and advertising in the swankiest magazines. After that, a relatively valueless black pearl became an expensive option for those who thought that the pearls were the classiest way to distinguish themselves.

Environments, Knowledge, and Subjective Experiences

Starbucks broke our coherence by changing the environment. Instead of drinking from a cheap paper cup, they gave us a cup with texture. The condiments are displayed in nice jars. An atmosphere with wood tables rather than Formica countertops. It was enough to break our coherence on price. However, that’s not the only factor capable of knocking us out of our subconscious patterns. Sometimes what we know – or don’t know – can make all the difference in what we experience.

What if you don’t know anything about the dish that you’re about to taste? You’re in a foreign country and you don’t speak the language. Your guide shares with you that this is a local delicacy and it’s a privilege that your host is willing to honor you by sharing it. You taste it and decide that it is indeed very good. Later your guide shares that what you ate was eel, or monkey brains, cockroaches, bull testicles, or something else that you might squirm a bit to know that you’ve just eaten.

What if you reverse the situation, and your guide tells you what is in the dish before you taste it? It shouldn’t matter to how much you like it – but it does. It shouldn’t change your opinion of the taste – but it does. Our knowledge of the situation – and our preconceived notions of it – can and does change the experience. An astute guide will tell you only that it’s rare and that it’s an honor and neglect the ingredients – until after, when it won’t matter much.

It seems that we’re easily swayed by the environments that we’re in. We’re willing to break our coherence based on the presence of fancy jars and wood counter tops. We’re unable to stop our perceptions from being changed based on our preconceived notions about things – unless we don’t know until after we experience it.

Love the Stuff You’ve Got

Have you ever wondered why parent’s children are – to them – the most precious creatures known to man, while others wonder which would be worse, their children or a kraken? Perhaps that’s a bit of hyperbole, but the truth is that parents believe their children are the cutest, smartest creatures to ever walk the face of the earth. That is, at least until they become teenagers, when they believe that and the parents try to correct them.

There’s an affinity to the things that we have. While this affinity doesn’t prevent us from coveting the things that others have, especially if they have status attached to them, it does tend to allow most of us to be happy with what we’ve got. (See Who Am I? for more about status as a motivator.) Of course, if there’s something available for free, we’re going to want that.

Free is Different

I go to a lot of conferences and that means I get the chance to walk a lot of exhibit halls. The booths are interesting; but perhaps more interesting to me are the people. There are those folks that will walk from booth to booth collecting whatever they have available for free. If it’s pens, they’ll scoop up a handful. They’ll do this even if they know they won’t survive the ride home in their bags. Why? Well, it’s not because the conference is in a far-off place, it’s because free is a different place.

While we may not like to make rational decisions, we still do some form of cost-benefit analysis in the back of our heads (way away from our frontal lobes) to decide whether to do something or not. For most of us, however, there’s a short in the system. When someone says the word “free”, we don’t consider any costs – not just the monetary cost.

Most things in life have a non-monetary cost. There’s the cost to have all that space, and the cost to transport whatever we’re getting, and a thousand other ways that “free” may not really be completely free. However, when someone says that it’s free, we fail to consider any of the other costs. So, all we see are the benefits – and then of course we want it. That means things that are free are “purchased” at a substantially higher rate than those that have even a trivial cost.

Social vs. Market Norms

Free isn’t the only way to change the way we view things in a predictable way. Sometimes it’s changing a transaction from market norms to social norms. Consider, for instance, volunteerism. People volunteer their time, energies, and talents with no expectation of compensation every day. I’ll be running audio for services at church on a weekend with no expectation of compensation. An audio engineer might make $80,000 per year and be busy half the time so the services might be worth $80/hr.

If I was offered $80/hr to do audio engineering, I’d turn it down – it’s not a good use of my time. However, I’m happy to serve the church by providing these services. I’d also be happy to take out the trash, cook a meal or anything else. The difference is that I’m operating on a different set of norms. When I’m volunteering, I’m operating on social – not market norms.

Similarly, I’ve said that one of the greatest tests of love is when you’ll do something for someone else that you won’t do for yourself. I don’t like to strip wallpaper, but when my sister-in-law needed help as she moved into a new house, that’s exactly what we went to do.

The lesson here is that if you want to get folks to help for less than what they’re worth, or to do things they won’t do for themselves, engage their desire for social interaction and social agency.

Closing Doors

Our social worlds are filled with opportunities and possibilities. The rest of our lives can seem as if there’s a bit of scarcity. That is, there is a limit to what is available to us. As a result, we resist closing doors. In fact, we’ll waste quite a bit of our energy and resources protecting things that we’ll never use again.

We’ve filled all our closets and storage spaces with clothes and things that we’ll never use again. We are holding on to some of these things for sentimental reasons, but many will have no practical purpose for us ever again. (You might look at your high school year book – but do you ever really expect to do anything with it than wax nostalgic about your youth?)

If you, like the rest of us, aren’t ready to close a door to make your life more simple and less cluttered, perhaps you can open a door by picking up Predictably Irrational.

Effective IT Steering Committees

A board of directors for an organization can be a liability – or they can be a serious asset. They can connect the organization to other organizations. They can bring insight into the organization and steer the organization away from potential disasters. A strong IT steering committee can do the same for an IT organization. However, getting a steering committee to be effective isn’t as easy as it sounds. The Indy CIO Network tackled the challenge of effective steering committees at the May 2017 meeting, and here’s what the group said (from my point of view).

Steering or Status

Getting the appropriate people involved in the steering committee is essential. If you don’t get anyone engaged, the meetings become little (or nothing) more than IT reporting status on its projects. It becomes a monologue of what IT thinks should be done, with passive listeners yawning, writing notes, or answering emails from their phone.

An effective steering committee isn’t getting status updates from their IT team members, it’s participating in an active discussion by asking questions – including questions that are sometimes difficult and uncomfortable. That’s the value of a steering committee. Just like a board of directors, it’s important for the CIO to get pushed out of their comfort zone – in a generative and safe way.

Looking for Trouble

If you’ve ever had kids, there are times you know that they’re just looking for trouble. They’re trying to get in trouble – generally for inexplicable reasons. However, good IT organizations aren’t looking to create trouble as our children sometimes are, they’re looking to find trouble before it becomes something bigger.

Like going to the mechanic when the check engine light comes on in the car instead of ignoring it, steering committees can provide valuable diagnostic information about how the IT organization is doing. While the feedback may not always feel good, it’s much better to solve a problem when it’s small and can be easily addressed than when it’s become a systemic problem that’s taken hold.

Sometimes trouble comes in the form of the opposite problem from the disengaged steering committee that won’t interact. It comes in the form of another master that the CIO must serve.

Too Many Masters

Sometimes the steering committee puffs up and becomes another master for the CIO to serve. Instead of advising, informing, and suggesting, the committee tries to assert its power to instruct – rather than guide – the CIO in what needs to be done. Many a CEO has had to manage this with a board of directors. On the one hand, the board of directors in an organization is the ultimate authority, but on the other, they’re only effective when they allow the CEO to make the calls they need to make and only intervene when it is appropriate.

IT steering committees don’t have the power of a board of directors, but even so they try to assert a level of control that would be inappropriate. Here the CIO must acknowledge the feedback but ultimately explain that the steering committee’s recommendations aren’t the final word. Ultimately the CIO reports to the CEO, not the steering committee.

In the end, the effective steering committee is like a board of directors in that it supports the CIO and the IT mission out to the organization. They’re bought in like a board of directors is when it has invested in the success of the organization.

Buy In

While the feedback and advice from the steering committee is valuable, the real value is in helping to build buy-in for the priorities of IT – and that not everything can be a priority. Building the buy-in that IT only has so many resources, and that those resources need to be allocated to the business areas based on need, is an important step to building sustainable relationships between IT and the business.

In a strange twist of fate, one business division thought that the CIO was trying to dictate their priorities with the steering committee. When the word “priorities” was swapped out for “capacity management,” the division leader joined in the conversation to make sure that IT knew about their needs and how IT could help.

Partners

When you can get the right people in the organization on the IT steering committee, the whole tenor of the conversations can change. Instead of IT being an order taker from the business – or dictating what the organization can and can’t do – IT becomes a key enabler for the business. Few IT organizations really dictate what the organization can and can’t do – but it can feel this way at times when IT conveys what it can and can’t support.

When the IT organization is already seen as a partner, there may not be a need for a steering committee.

Alternative Steering

Sometimes a steering committee isn’t even a steering committee. In effective organizations, the feedback needed to guide the IT department comes in the form of an agenda item for existing operational and strategic meetings. There’s no need to have something separate for IT if it can fit into the existing organizational management approaches.

It’s not that these CIOs get a free pass to do anything they want – or at least avoid getting feedback. It’s that the feedback they get comes directly as a part of normal operations rather than needing yet another meeting. This level of integration is healthy inoculation against “shadow” IT.

Shadow IT

In most large organizations, there’s some level of information technology work going on outside the IT department. Some level of this is right and appropriate. The business hires technically savvy people and they handle some of their own problems. It creates challenges, however, when these technically savvy people don’t work with centralized IT. That is, instead of viewing central IT as the partners that provide the core services that the business unit IT needs, they see centralized IT as a competitor, an enemy, or an impediment.

When the business and IT are in partnership, there’s no need to be competitive. IT does some core functions and business unit IT builds on those platforms. When there’s a solution to be created, or purchased for the business unit, all the parties sit down at the table and find the best solution for the organization. One of the best ways to do this is to align the mission and values.

Mission and Values

Almost every organization has a corporate mission statement. Whether it’s posted on the walls or buried in the employee handbook, it’s there. However, very few organizations live out their mission and values. Very few are able to build partnerships based on a shared understanding of what the organization is on this Earth to do – and not to do.

Powerful organizations build coalitions based on the idea that we’re all in this together, and so there’s no need for competition. Once there’s a mission and values in place, it’s possible to create a roadmap that’s effective for everyone.

Roadmap

IT, like the rest of the organization, can’t be all things to all people. There are fixed resources, and therefore a fixed capacity for new projects. By establishing a roadmap – and getting steering committee buy in – the friction is shifted from the gap between IT and the business to the gap between different areas of the business. By establishing a roadmap, everyone knows when their projects will get done – and what is ahead of them in line. Instead of arguing with IT about getting a better position, they can negotiate with other business units to get a better spot on the roadmap.

They can also become advocates for additional IT capacity so that their projects can be done sooner. By allowing the business to drive the roadmap, there’s the ability to have the business itself be champions for temporary or permanent changes in funding.

The challenge with this roadmap process is that sometimes it leaves internal cost optimization projects in IT under-appreciated and under-funded.

Managing the Mix

Every IT budget includes operational line items and developmental line items. The operational line items change when you implement cost reduction programs, switch vendors, or find a better way to buy the resource. However, all of these are projects that – if IT doesn’t get an appropriate voice at, the steering committee will die – can represent real cost savings to the organization over the long term.

Managing the mix of operational costs, investments in new solutions, and investments in cost optimization is a real challenge. If you optimize costs, you’re not delivering new functionality to the business. If you’re always focused on getting the business features, then you’ll have high operating costs. The reality is the mix of projects is dictated by the organization and what it needs to keep IT effective.

In the end, the steering committee is designed to help surface the business and IT operational issues in a way that the entire committee can design a roadmap that everyone can live with. If you can get that, then you know you’ve got an effective IT steering committee.

Book Review-Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us

Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” That’s the heart of what Seth Godin is talking about with Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us. Tribes are about how you can get people together with a shared interest and allow them to communicate about their passions. What can happen when you get a small (or not so small) group of people together is amazing. Sometimes tribe leaders break some glass, but in general they get things done.

Creating a Ruckus

Tribes aren’t formed in the status quo. People aren’t passionate about the way things are. People are passionate and engaged in making things different and better. Tribes are made of people who see the status quo leading nowhere and desiring to do something better. When you set about changing the status quo, you’re going to create a ruckus.

Of all the ways that Godin talks about how leaders are disruptive, I like the word “ruckus” most. It’s about making a statement that seems radical given the status quo, but if the leader is successful, it will seem to be normal. The Earth isn’t flat. The Sun doesn’t orbit the Earth. Lighting will strike the same place twice. We do use more than 10% of our brains. You can’t create gold from lead – sorry Isaac Newton.

The prevailing understanding isn’t always right, even if someone says that it’s scientific fact. We’ve disproven hundreds of strongly-held beliefs. We find ever smaller particles even though we once thought that the atom couldn’t be further decomposed.

Each time we have a scientific discovery challenge the status quo, a ruckus is created. Each time a leader takes a stand and unites a tribe, a ruckus is created.

Need for Belonging

Even though we’re talking about tribes who feel like the status quo isn’t the right thing, that doesn’t stop the fundamental human nature for the need for belonging. I mentioned this need for belonging in my post High Orbit – Respecting Grieving and the need for people to have social relationships. I covered the need for belonging in more detail in my review of The Search for Significance. The short is we all need to feel like we belong somewhere. Brené Brown in Daring Greatly talks about the need for belonging as the need for connection to others.

This is what makes leading a tribe both fulfilling at a deep level once it’s going and at the same time intensely isolating when you decide to cause a ruckus and challenge the status quo. Until you’ve found your tribe, you’re off on your own.

Leading with Discomfort

Leading anything is an uncomfortable proposition. Leading something radical is even more so. A leader isn’t a leader without anyone following, and yet the burning fire in your soul won’t let you quit forging a new path. It’s this passion that attracts others to you like a magnet. They learn about your passion and they want some of that.

However, leadership is filled with hard questions, difficult walks, and a lot of uncomfortable self-reflection about who you are and what you’re trying to accomplish in life. Leaders question their passion. They question themselves. Ultimately, they move forward because it’s what seems like the right thing to do rather than some well-thought-out plan or some grand vision that they’re going to make it. It’s a blind faith that this must be done that drives many leaders. (See Extreme Productivity if you want to see more folks who acknowledge that there are no plans in life or leadership.)

Igniting a Passion

Putting a stake in the ground is the first step. Saying to yourself and others that this is the passion that you’re going to follow is a great start; but then what? The second step is to share your passion – to unleash your fire – with others so that they can feel it too.

The primary torch that carries the passion from one person to another isn’t the cool, calculating precision of rationality. Instead, it’s the same torch that we’ve had with us since the dawn of civilization. That is, we spread our passion with stories. We tell stories of the horrors of the status quo. We tell stories of those who’ve reached this cause’s version of nirvana. We tell our personal stories of struggle and discovery that ignited our passion.

Fanning the Flames

Tribes aren’t about stuff – even important, change the world stuff – they’re about connection. They’re about the ability to connect with one another in an important way. The story of a tribe isn’t just one story, it’s the weaving together of a thousand stories.

I remember (but can’t find the reference to) Scott Adams talking about a cartoon that he particularly liked but that didn’t resonate well with the audience. It was about a tiny little IRS man that fit inside the pocket of your shirt. The point was that though Adams, whose insight on what people identify with in corporate America is amazing, liked this one cartoon too much. It too precisely fit his personal tastes and thoughts. His audience, the people that were buying (or enjoying) his cartoons, didn’t see the same enjoyment that he did.

In Adams’ traditional, one-way world, there’s very little opportunity to create a tribe that can tell its own stories into the ethos to fan its own flames. However, today we have dozens of channels and tools that can be used to allow tribe members to feed off of each other and deepen their passion and interest for the tribe in the process.

Willing to Be Wrong

To be the leader of a tribe you must be willing to be wrong. You must be willing to accept failure as an option without accepting you’ll be a failure because of it. Willingness to fail and the conviction to stand when times are tough are that Stockdale paradox that Jim Collins discusses in Good to Great, where you have to have unwavering faith – and a willingness to listen to the market. I’m willing to be wrong, but I think you’ll enjoy Tribes.

Article: The Actors in Training Development: Business Owners

Any training process starts with a business need. That is, someone in the business wants or needs their employees to be more productive than they currently are and looks to training or a job aid to generate that productivity. The business owner is that person, who starts the process of improving productivity.

Part of the TrainingIndustry.com series, the Actors in Training Development. Read more…

Book Review-Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work

Imagine your best day. Imagine the day that you were so in the moment and so ignited, so alive, and then try to make it every day. That’s what Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal are trying to teach people how to do in Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work. Altered states of conscious, and most especially flow, is the name of the game. They’re trying to share the secrets from diverse explorers of the mind and body experience in a way that we can all begin to drink more freely from the fountains of experiences that release us from our normal limitations and push us to ecstasis – the act of stepping beyond oneself.

Fundamentals of Flow

I’m a follower of flow, having read Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow and Finding Flow books. I’ve also read Steven Kotler’s previous work The Rise of Superman that speaks to the extraordinary feats that people who are in flow can accomplish – and the triggers that are useful to get into that state. While Kotler spoke of group flow in The Rise of Superman, it’s really in Stealing Fire that the attention is focused on group flow and getting people to work together. (If you want another reference for group flow, Group Genius also speaks of it.) While the point of Stealing Fire isn’t group flow, there are many groups that are using flow and group flow to deliver results.

Flow is a powerful state, allowing people in the delicate balance of challenge and skill to operate 5 times more efficiently than they might be able to operate in their out-of-flow states. The long-term side effects of flow seem to be creativity and happiness. All in all, flow seems to be the key to unleashing our human potential. Getting groups to operate in flow together can be a visceral experience.

Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous (VUCA)

Most of us would acknowledge that the world is moving faster and seems more uncertain than it did a generation – or even a decade – ago. In business, we see industries getting crushed in a heartbeat. We’re seeing the death of the wired telephone, as we call people on their mobile phones instead of places like their house or work. However, these conditions are nothing in comparison to the challenges that the Navy SEALs encounter. Their assignments are often Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous (VUCA) – on an unimaginable scale. They must accomplish a mission when often the way to get that done must be made up on the fly.

It’s not that the SEALs don’t train and plan. They do both extensively. It was Helmuth von Moltke that first noted, “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.” In the high-stakes world of SEALs, they have to adapt in the moment – and as a unit. SEALs are an expensive machine, perhaps costing $85 million in their training and preparation; but, though expensive, they get results.

SEALs have a reputation for being a hard as nails group, but that reputation doesn’t quite explain the mental toughness that is present in all of them. In fact, it’s mental toughness that is the distinguishing characteristic that makes a good SEAL. Their ability to take on tough challenges and their ability to meld their consciousness into the group is what makes them great. Unfortunately, these characteristics are ones that are mostly screened for since, despite a wide array of training and technological options, the Navy still can’t train the baseline mental toughness.

So, the SEALs take the raw materials and refine them. They have learned how to train more effectively. They can take the process of learning a new language and get it done in 6 weeks instead of 6 months. They’ve figured out how to flip the switch individually and collectively to help SEALs get into flow – and to stay there. This refinement process is radically different from the festival in the desert where people go to find group flow.

Burning Man

Surviving in an uncertain world isn’t certain. But the uncertainty that most of us face these days isn’t the same kind of life-or-death survival that our ancestors faced. For the most part, our uncertainty is confined to our success. Our Type-A, control everything personality may get its ego bruised, but we’ll ultimately be fine. (See Change or Die for more about our Ego and its Defenses.)

Sometimes the constraints that we have in our daily lives make it difficult – or impossible – to get into flow. Our inner critic is in control, and she’s got no intent of letting go of control, ending up in flow, or getting silenced. By removing all the trappings of traditional society, including the mundane trappings of personal hygiene, it’s sometimes enough to confuse the inner critic into submission. Sometimes stripping away the rules and structures is enough to drop folks into individual or group flow with others, and sometimes it takes some pharmaceutical enhancement, which is relatively easy to access inside at this festival in the desert.

Phenethylamines I Have Known and Loved

Drugs and altered states of thinking have a long history. Stealing Fire opens with the Eleusinian Mysteries – a ritual designed to “strip away the standard frames of reference, profoundly alter consciousness, and unlock a heightened level of insight.” This ritual centered around kykeon, a dark liquid that reportedly packed one hell of a punch. Nature has a long history of animals seeking out ways to “get high,” and humans are no exception to the rule. Most of the time this process has worked well with animals seeking out a brief altered state and then returning to their normal lives.

Drug stores used to sell the same pharmaceuticals that are now illegal over the counter. Those drugs certainly weren’t harm-free, but used in moderated doses, they harmed less than they relieved people. In our grand failure of an experiment with depriving Americans of alcohol, we accidentally unleashed a force for suppressing all kinds of drugs. It’s not surprising that the most destructive substance – alcohol – should foreshadow the problems that we’d have when we criminalized other substances. (For more on how we ended up with our current drug enforcement mess, see Chasing the Scream.)

One man, Sasha (Alexander) Shulgin stood in consistent contradiction to the changes happening in his world where more and more substances were becoming “controlled.” As a chemist, he would make compounds and, ultimately, test them on himself, his wife, and close friends. They would record then their experiences. In the end, he and his wife, Ann, wrote two books, PiHKAL and TiHKAL, or in expanded forms, “Phenethylamines I have Known and Loved” and “Tryptamines I Have Known and Loved.” That is, they cataloged the development and experimentation with two classes of drugs which had mind-altering effects.

These drugs have the capacity to temporarily knock the normal functioning of the brain just a bit out of sync so that the experiences that are normally denied to us are suddenly available. Another way to do that is to trick or allow the body to do that on its own. Sasha and Ann Shulgin mixed their love of chemicals with their love of each other.

The Sexual Revolution

When it comes to biological imperatives, not even the trio of food motivators – salt, sugar, and fat – can compete with the drive for sex. The competition for, and therefore scarcity of, mates makes this reproductive drive intense. Sex can and does create the same kind of transcendent experience as meditation – or medication (drugs) – without all the knee crossing or needles. The chemicals released during sex (and particularly orgasm) are as good as it gets in the neurological world.

In the past, the consequences of unprotected, unrestricted sex meant babies and diseases. Human offspring have the longest period of dependency of any animal, so making a baby is an expensive endeavor from a biological standpoint. That caused the earliest forms of power and control – both the state and particularly the church – to try to control when people could have sex and with whom. (If you’re interested in how the church evolved to support our biology, Spiritual Evolution is a wonderful walk through how our biology and the structures of church have coevolved.)

Though some groups argue that positions on sex (not the kind in the Kama Sutra) are changing very rapidly, it’s taking decades to slowly divorce the stigma from sex that has persisted for centuries. As I mentioned in my review of America’s Generations, sex has moved from something that was a duty for the GI generation to a recreational pastime for millennials of today.

Many churches still teach that sex before marriage is a sin – thereby creating the guilt-control that they need to mitigate the risk of babies and diseases. We’ve long since developed other means to mitigate the outcomes of unwanted pregnancies through contraception and a level of protection from diseases through the effective use of condoms. We’ve also learned that this guilt-control approach is less effective than the use of contraception. (See my review of Dialogue: The Art of Thinking Together for more.)

Another problem is that, in my research of the Greek, I don’t find support for the point of view that sex must be after marriage. (I won’t even try to defend that position in the Old Testament Hebrew, where there are several R-rated passages related to sex.) Even the Amish, as a part of rumspringa, have an allowance for “sharing a bed.” Absolutely, there’s clarity on sex outside of a marital union – when you’re in a marriage.

The problem is that this can confuse the reward systems by mixing in fear and creating either a less-enjoyable experience, or a more intense experience – based on the types of fears and the makeup of the person. There is after all a certain charge out of doing the forbidden.

Absent the guilt imposed by the church or by society, and the performance anxiety of new relationships, sex can be a truly transcendent experience – one way to get beyond ourselves.

Meting Out the Good Stuff

It’s not just the church or the state that keeps us in check and slowly doles out enough transcendent experiences to keep us happy. Certainly they do but others do this as well. In my review of Intimacy Anorexia, I recounted the idea of “starving the dog”. That is, giving the dog just enough food to stay alive, but alive as an angry animal who doesn’t have the energy to break free of his bonds. This is what the institutions do – and what we do to ourselves.

We ourselves have decided that some ways of accelerating our growth and our performance should be out of bounds. We’ve decided that performance-enhancing drugs should be off-limits for those who want to do better. However, the decision about what is inside and outside of the line is random and sometimes schizophrenic.

Protein shakes are OK but steroids are not. We can eat a healthy diet but not take some supplements. We can’t embed technology because somehow that breaks who we are as a person. We’ll ignore people with pacemakers. We’ll side-step those with insulin pumps. We’ll leap past those who have ports to ensure that it’s easy to dispense medications without damaging blood vesicles. Those devices are all to support those who “can’t” reach their full potential – to support life. So, they’re OK in that context.

We’ll allow ourselves to use this medical device – but not that one. We’ll accept this therapy but not another. This is how we keep control of ourselves – like the institutions do.

The Good, The Bad, The Self

In a strange twist of nature, we see ourselves partially by perceiving our world and then identifying the self from that world. John Lilly in 1960s began experimenting with sensory deprivation tanks to eliminate our focus on ourselves and allow our consciousness to expand. When you deprive the brain of the sensory inputs that it needs to distinguish itself from the world, it dials down our sense of self. In general, we think that our sense of self is a good thing. It provides identity – but in doing so, it constricts our ability to think without the inner critic constantly nagging us. In one sense, our self helps us be who we are, and in another sense, constrains us to being who we are. Sensory deprivation tanks, meditation, and drugs can reduce the sense of self – both for good and bad. In these cases, we’re talking about triggering transient (temporary) hypo-frontality (low-frontal). That’s good news if we want to shut up the inner critic.

It’s all about energy exchange. The brain has a fixed maximum amount of glucose (power) that it can consume. If you want to over-engage one part of the brain, another part of the brain must shut down to keep the maximum power consumption in balance. (The Rise of Superman covers this exchange and so does The End of Memory.) If we can focus energy consumption where we want, some other places have to shut down. That’s why we experience STER.

Selflessness, Timelessness, Effortlessness, and Richness (STER)

With sensory perception narrowed to the important pieces, we’re depriving the brain with sufficient input to map out the true edges of our self. Our internal timing, as it turns out, is calculated by multiple places across the brain, coordinating activity; take one of them offline and you’ve got a clock without a pendulum and the resulting timelessness. With the inner critic silenced – or at least muffled – we don’t see the effort in what we’re doing resulting in effortlessness – even if it’s physically exhausting. With the “default mode” network – the network of inner voices – offline, we’re free to attend to what we’re doing instead of worrying about what the voices are saying.

STER is a way to know that you’re in – or rather, have been in – flow. In the moment with the selflessness, it’s awfully hard to be self-aware enough to realize you’re in flow. But once you drop out of flow, many can feel the euphoria of having been in it – and the loss that you’re not in it any longer.

Getting Lost

Getting beyond ourselves, our world, our lives, necessarily involves some risk. Perhaps not as much risk as those action-adventure athletes that find flow as they’re hurling themselves down a mountain (whether there is snow or not) – but risk nonetheless. Explorers get lost. Some will die. It’s safe(-ish) at home. No one gets lost when they walk inside the edges of their map.

The problem is that the map never gets bigger. We never become more if we’re always inside the lines and the bounds. As explorers are lost – we who remain mourn them. Everyone mourns in their own way. (See On Death and Dying for more on that process.) Some try to create new rules – new stronger barriers – to keep the future explorers inside the map. If they don’t explore past the edges, they can’t become lost. If they can’t become lost, there will be no morning – or so the thinking goes.

The mourning will be the loss of living if not the loss of life. All of us have experienced some level of loss in our lives, some more than others. We’ve seen family members, friends, pets, and people leave us, and it’s painful and wrong and necessary. In the pain of losing our loved ones’ lives, we can’t give up living – truly, fully living. If we do that, we’ve extinguished the fire, rather than having stolen it.

Stealing Fire for a Reason

Prometheus stole fire to give warmth to humans. We look for ways to go beyond ourselves to make ourselves and all of humanity better. There are those who are explorers on this journey, who steal fire to keep it to themselves. Bliss-junkies who want to tune in and drop out. There are those who want to explore ecstasis simply for their own enjoyment and reward. However, having been honored to get to know Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal, I can say that they want to give fire to all of us, to ignite in us the fire that has always been burning, the quest to be something better. That all starts with Stealing Fire.

Comparing SharePoint On-Premises (Apples) to SharePoint Online (Oranges)

I get asked about whether SharePoint on-premises or SharePoint Online is right for the organizations I work with – or whether they should leverage the power of “and” and use both. In this quick video (3:42), I cover the basics about why you should choose one vs. the other – or whether both is the right answer.

Take a look and see if this answers the questions that you have https://youtu.be/eFCAclzQIKU

If you need more information, feel free to reach out.

IT as the Catalyst for Organizational Change

In the April 2017 lunch meeting for the Indy CIO Network, we took up the topic of organizational change and how IT often gets thrust into the position of being organizational change agents with neither support nor training. However, instead of lamenting about the position we’re in, we discussed ways for our organizations and our IT organizations to be successful.

Not an IT Project, a Change Project

By far the most challenging issue we confronted was the idea that many organizational change projects are running around like a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Projects to upgrade systems or install new systems are often times moved to change the way the organization operates; but despite efforts to the contrary, the projects often get labeled with the name of the new system or version of the system.

The easy and tangible part of the system – the technology – becomes the moniker for the entire effort. As a result, people think that this is an IT project to change technology when that may be an afterthought or just the result of changing the business.

The need to clearly articulate the “real” project isn’t enough. This is a people problem, where everyone needs to hear in tangible terms how things will change and what it will mean to them.

80% People

Organizational change initiatives do have a technology component, however, that technology component of the project may only represent 20% of the overall work of the project. After all, changing the technology is the easy part. The hard part is changing people. Murry Gell-Mann once said “Think how hard physics would be if particles could think.” Instead of following the straightforward rules of ones and zeros they would be free to make up their own minds – just like people are.

People’s feelings aren’t even just a factor in their behavior. They’re THE factor. We like to believe that we’re rational decision makers but, as Gary Klein points out in Sources of Power, we make recognition-primed decisions – not rational ones. The Happiness Hypothesis (and Switch) take this further to speak of Jonathan Haidt’s model of the Rider-Elephant-Path. In this, our rationality is sitting on top of a massive elephant that is really in control. Thinking, Fast and Slow and Incognito both point out that our emotions – or System 1 – can lie to our rational selves. Whatever the lies are, they’re always lies about how change will impact us personally.

WIII-FM

What Is In It For Me (WIII-FM) is everyone’s favorite radio station. It’s the radio station that plays in our head all the time. We’re always considering what we’re experiencing based on the idea that it may – or may not – impact us. So whatever change we propose to the organization, we have to remember that it has impact to people – and that impact to people will always be personal.

In a discussion about a mainframe elimination project, we asserted that we had to be honest that there were some jobs that were going to go away. Because even though the truth is hard, it is the truth that everyone knows. By sugar-coating the message, we run the risk of eroding trust – and it’s trust that is the lubricant to getting change done.

The Lubrication of Trust

One of the reasons that organizational change initiatives fail is that there is a growing lack of trust. John Kotter, a Harvard professor emeritus says that about 70% of organizational change projects fail. (See Leading Change and The Heart of Change.) At least some of that is due to the lack of trust that an organization’s employee has for the organization and it’s getting worse. America’s Generations reports that, starting at Generation X, there has been a building skepticism towards large organizations.

Trust: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order spends a great deal of time exploring the impact of trust on organizations and nations – including how trust in one area can reduce trust in another area. Trust lubricates an economy and an organization by reducing the amount of effort that must be put into protecting ourselves.

Building Trust and Making Change Work

Rebuilding trust and making change work function in the same way. You build trust by making and meeting small commitments until you can make larger ones. In the same way, we make changes by breaking them down into small, incremental steps so that they don’t seem daunting.

While leadership maybe thoroughly entrenched in the vision of the future, the everyday worker in the organization lives in the world of now. Without a path between the now and the future, they’ll keep doing what they’re doing – or worse, they’ll freeze. Often, we get into the valley of despair in a change, when productivity is low and things aren’t quite working yet, and people freeze and end up not able to move forward to accomplish the productivity that everyone wants.

In the end, we need our business leaders to join us – and lead the charge – in changing the organization. IT can be the catalyst, but the business has to start the reaction to change.

Book Review-How Will You Measure Your Life?

The question is simple enough. It seems like a question that I’ve answered before. However, somehow the meaning question – How Will You Measure Your Life? – is one that I, like others, thought I had answered but somewhere got interrupted. I was in the middle of writing the answer of my life and I got distracted. I’m glad that I got back to looking at the question through the lens of Clayton Christensen, James Allworth, and Karen Dillon’s work.

Lost Along the Way

It’s hard to believe that our careers and our lives are like boats adrift on the ocean without solid wind to drive our sails. However, many people find themselves drifting off course with little understanding of how to get back to where they need to go. The Halo Effect spoke of the probabilistic nature of our lives. While someone might have defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, Edison thought differently. Small changes eventually led to the incandescent lightbulb. In Extreme Productivity we spent most of the book hearing about Bob Pozen’s life: how he’s used strategies to get ahead in his life, only to find out at the end that his life is filled with the same random connections and dumb luck that has fueled our own lives.

That isn’t to say that planning a strategy for where we want our lives to go and positioning ourselves in that direction is futile – it’s not. While we may be lousy at predicting what will make us happy (see Stumbling on Happiness), we should try to figure it out – because we’ve still got better odds when we’re shooting for something. In the end our lives, and where we end up, aren’t actually about the destination. It’s about the journey. I mentioned my trip to Mt. Rushmore and the powerful push towards understanding that life is about the journey in my reviews of Changes That Heal and Introducing The Psychology of Success. Sometimes getting a little lost and experiencing the journey isn’t bad – as long as you remember to get back on track at some point.

The Fallacy of Sequencing

Too many people make initial decisions to sequence their life so that they can build a strong foundation for themselves, and then get lost along the way with no clear path about how to get back to what they really want. Do you want to know a secret? I know how much money it will take for you to be happy. It’s roughly twice what you’re making now. I know this because, for all but a handful of people, this is the number that they want.

So as gifted people start their careers to put a financial base underneath themselves, suddenly they find that the stable financial base must be larger and larger. Each time they almost make it, the need for stability gets larger. Adding to that, it’s hard to turn away from people rewarding you with financial incentives if the alternative is less money and higher purpose.

The Fallacy of Planning

If we know that life is about change, probabilities, and that we’ll likely not end up where we intended, why then does it make sense to plan at all? After all, 93 percent of all companies must abandon their original strategy because it proved to not be viable. It would seem that, with these odds, you shouldn’t try for anything at all. However, there is a reason that I learned a long time ago from hunting.

I was learning to shoot with a bow and arrow. I was happy to hit the deer target that had been set up for me. I felt good to be able to hit it at all until my uncle helped me understand the importance of having a narrow target. By having a narrow target (right behind the deer’s shoulder blade) I started to shoot better. Instead of being happy with just hitting the deer, I got specific.

Did I hit my target as often as I hit the deer when that was the target? Nope. However, when I changed my goal and I got specific, I got the ability to use valuable feedback to refine my aim, and as a result I hit the deer more often.

Life is like this. We need to have a specific, narrow target so that we can get realigned. We need feedback from others about what we’re trying to do, so that we can refine it and end up with the right target – for now. So, while you can’t plan out your life, it doesn’t mean that planning is meaningless.

It’s a Job

In How Will You Measure Your Life?, the path wanders through innovation, product marketing, and other topics. One of the interesting stops is learning how people buy products. People buy products to do a job. There’s something that we want and the product – or service – is designed to meet that need. The more we know about the specific need of the person, the more we can design a solution for that problem. The book walks through how to make milkshakes better and recognizes there are two very different needs that milkshakes are hired to do. In the morning, they’re something to keep the commute interesting and provide enough sustenance to prevent mid-morning tummy grumbles. In the afternoons and evenings, it’s something that parents can say yes to after a day of saying no to their child all day.

One product – a milkshake – with two different and, in this case, competing needs. The daily commuter needed a milkshake that they could take their time with and savor during their commute. The parent wanted a milkshake that the child could finish quickly. Two relatively opposite objectives. Finish quicker – or finish slower. This is the challenge with aggregating data. The Black Swan, in conversations about unexpected events, exposes the challenge of averages and their inherent hiding of the details and uniqueness of the data.

Outsourcing Core Competencies

Another sidestep from our measuring our life is the discussion of how some organizations, like Dell, sometimes end up outsourcing so much of what they do that they eventually outsource their core competencies. That is, the thing that made the organization great eventually becomes something that you rely on other organizations to do.

In our personal lives, this has an interesting implication. What are the things in our life that we need to keep because they power our uniqueness, and which do we need to let go because they’re something that someone else can do better, faster, cheaper? An easy question is whether you should do your own lawn maintenance or not. If it’s something that brings you joy or energizes you, the quick answer is keep it.

However, what if you, like me, perceive it to be a chore that must be done? It’s just one more burden of an overburdened life. I can do my lawn maintenance. I am “qualified.” I even have all the tools. However, if I don’t find it enjoyable, should I pay someone to do the work instead of me? Should I outsource this activity so that I can do something else? In my case, the answer is yes. I’d rather write an article a month to cover the cost of doing my lawn maintenance rather than doing it myself.

In the case of lawn maintenance, for me, it’s not a core competency. Writing, on the other hand, is. If I could take a few hours and “crank out” an article and make enough to pay for the lawn maintenance that month, which is a better use of my time? Of course, this assumes that I can get the article assignments.

Breaking the Shell

The chick is struggling to break out of its shell. You can see its struggle. You can imagine yourself in their position. You would want help. Shouldn’t you help the chick break free from its shell? Only if you want to sentence it to death. You see, chicks need the struggle to break out of their shell, just like we as humans need our struggles. (See How Children Succeed for more about our need for challenges.)

It turns out that, if we don’t have challenges, we never develop the toughness that’s necessary for our long-term survival – and for our ability to thrive. If you’ve not been able to struggle, then you’ll grow up believing that others are there to remove all the barriers in your way. It turns out that this self-centered approach to life isn’t good for your contribution to society – or to your happiness.

Happiness Worth Devoting Yourself To

Happiness is hard to come by. Finding lasting joy is a life’s work, and one that many have tried to capture directly or indirectly in their writing. (See Stumbling on Happiness and The Happiness Hypothesis for two direct approaches to finding happiness.) Time and time again, studies reveal that people are in relationships are happier. Married people report being happier on average than their non-married friends. That is to say, those in marriages had an intimate connection with another human being. (See High Orbit – Respecting Grieving for more on Dunbar’s work on social connections.) Certainly, some marriages are dysfunctional and doesn’t provide that connectedness, but on the whole, this connection added happiness to both lives.

If we look back at John Gottman’s work, as described in The Science of Trust, we find that he identifies “Make Life Dreams Come True” as one of the key foundations to sound relationships. How Will You Measure Your Life? describes it as “the path to happiness is about finding someone who you want to make happy, and someone whose happiness is worth devoting yourself to.” One key to how I’ll measure my life is my relationships – with my wife, with my family, and with those who I have the privilege of spending time with. Spiritual Evolution remarks, “Nevertheless, on their deathbeds more people probably rejoice in having raised children than in having achieved precious moments of meditational Nirvana.” The One Thing quotes from The Top Five Regrets of the Dying. Second on that list is “I wish I’d stayed in touch with my friends – too often they failed to give them the time and effort they deserved.”

Jobs for Experiences

When you’re searching for your next opportunity, there are all sorts of variables to consider. You can consider the financial gain you’ll get. The authority that you’ll have. Perhaps it’s stability that you crave and that you’re seeking. (See Who Am I? and The Normal Personality for Reiss’ 16 factor model for understanding peoples’ motivations.) One of the useful and longer-term views is to look at the next opportunity from the lens of whether it will create the experience that you want in your life.

Once you’ve determined what you want in your life, you can start to architect your decisions on the path that is most likely to lead to that goal. You may not become a famous author or a motivational speaker, but if these are your aims, there are steps you can take to get closer. You can join writing workshops to learn the skills necessary to become a better writer. You can take classes to become a better speaker. (Or do something crazy like take a class on stand-up comedy like I discussed in my post I Am a Comedian.)

My Measuring Sticks

For me, I’m not looking to keep score. Somewhere along the line, I missed the class on status being important. I’m quite happy to drive an average car. I’m happy in the home that I share with my family. I’m going to measure my life based on the way that I can positively impact others. My wife, my family, and my friends are the way that I’m going to measure my life.

To get there, I’ve got to continue to make money through work, but I’ll do that too from the lens of trying to help others. That, is how I’m going to measure my life. So How Will You Measure Your Life?

What’s Your Cloud Strategy?

I love learning how people come from different places based on their perspectives. The March 2017 meeting of the Indy CIO Network took up the topic of cloud strategy and the conversation was remarkable.

What Kind of Cloud?

As a pilot, I was trained to identify different kinds of clouds so that I could avoid getting caught in weather that either the pilot (me) or the plane couldn’t handle. I came to appreciate the number of different kinds of cloud formations there were and how knowing what they were could keep me safe.

When we’re talking about technology clouds, there are a few options:

  • Infrastructure as a Service (Iaas) – Virtualized machines that you can manage as if they are on premises.
  • Platform as a Service (Paas) – Containers that you can deploy your solutions into to take advantage of larger data centers and other resources that may not be practical to deploy yourself.
  • Software as a Service (SaaS) – A software package licensed with hosting of the application included. This bypasses the hidden maintenance costs of running a server and managing a software package.

With flying, the challenge was always safety; with the technical cloud, it comes down to security.

Security – Better or Worse

On the one hand the availability of cloud-hosted resources would seem to have a worse security profile than something locked away in our respective data centers. After all, availability and security have been natural-born enemies since the beginning of time. It intuitively makes sense that if it’s more available then it’s got to be less secure.

On the other hand, the cloud service vendors generally have better resources than a small- or even medium-sized company might have to purchase intrusion detection and pay security analysts to continuously monitor what’s happening on the systems. So they’re a bigger target in aggregate, but they’re also bringing substantially more resources to bear than we could if we had the services in our network.

From a practical point of view, the surface area – or availability – isn’t all that different between a server hosted in the cloud platform vs. one that’s on your local network. Most organizations recognize the need for employees to work while traveling. As a result, virtual private networks (VPNs) have become common, so most employees really have availability to get to information no matter where they are on the planet – or in the air.

In the end, the kind of security technology being deployed and the rigor of the security policies – including checks and balances – generally means that cloud-hosted systems are more secure, even if this seems at times to be counter-intuitive.

Goals

The group agreed that cloud hosting doesn’t save you direct costs – or at least not much. What the cloud services give you are features that you can’t afford to implement on your own. Whether it’s a service level agreement (SLA) that includes a lot of 9s or elasticity, cloud isn’t about cost savings. It’s about mindshare and capital savings.

In some scenarios, the goal is to increase uptime and geographic diversity to handle outages in a way that just isn’t practical to do internally.

Very High Availability

Some systems just can’t be down. The business cost of being down, both directly and in terms of the brand damage, are just not tolerable. Even when the primary operations are on your environment locally because of proximity or other needs, having the ability to switch to a cloud backup when you’re not able to service customers is essential.

While there are very high profile outages at Microsoft, Amazon, and others, these outages are, generally speaking, quite rare. The amount of redundancy that exists in their environments simply isn’t practical for the mid-sized organization to buy.

The Real Risk and Opportunity

It seems that the real risk and opportunity with developing a cloud strategy is scaring your IT professionals with not having a job. My observation, and those of some of my national peers, has been that it isn’t IT professionals losing their jobs – it’s that their jobs are changing to be more customer-focused and interactive.

So while the fear of being replaced is there, the real opportunity is for our IT staff to become more closely aligned and embedded in the organization, so that IT isn’t seen as something distant and far away, but is instead seen as a partner trying to help the business get things done.

Book Review-Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action

Lights. Camera. Inaction. Wait, that’s not right. Lights. Camera. Action. We all want action. We want to see people extraordinary and ordinary take action, to do something. We want to see the triumph of human achievement. We want to be inspired to take action. All too often, we’re stuck going through the motions. We step forward each day, not realizing the path we’re on or even why we’re on it. That’s what Simon Sinek wants us to do in his book Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action. He wants us to question the “why” of our journey so we leap down the path instead of trudge down it.

Building a Cathedral

There’s an old story recounted in Start with Why that bears repeating (and slightly reinterpreting). A man walks up to a mason who is busy with his trowel, and interrupts him with a question whose answer seems obvious: “What are you doing?” The man in a slightly grumbled voice answers, “I’m slaving away, laying one heavy block after another in the scorching hot sun. The work has gone on for as long as I remember, and I see no end in sight.” The stunned interviewer turns to the guy next to him, who is building the same wall, and asks him what he’s doing. The answer was shocking in its simplicity and powerful in its enthusiasm. He said, “I’m building a cathedral!”

Both men were working on the same wall. They endured the same conditions. They likely received similar pay. Everything about the men was the same, except the attitude of the second man was different. He wasn’t struggling to lift each block and place it. He was inspired. He knew what he was creating. He had the power of his why. He got to participate in the building of a cathedral.

The Rebel Within Us

Have you ever wondered how a motorcycle company that had a bad quality record and a lousy delivery record ended up becoming a cultural icon? The answer lies within us. Have you ever wondered how a computer company could ignite a revolution, lose its way, and begin to inspire us again?

At the heart of this power is the need for us to be rebellious. We need the ability to find a way to differentiate ourselves. It’s wired into our DNA as a way of ensuring that we can find a mate and reproduce, thus copying our genes. We need rebellion so that we can stand out from the herd and be found. (See
Fascinate
for more on the motivator of rebellion.) Harley-Davidson motorcycles capitalized on this rebellious nature in their branding, and they became popular motorcycles, in part because it felt like a bit of sanctioned rebellion to own one.

Apple’s ads have routinely attacked the status quo. Whether it’s the classic 1984 super bowl ad or their “I’m a Mac” campaign, they focused on the need to be an individual and stand free from the pack.

Sanctioned Rebellion

It’s a bit of an oxymoron. It’s internally inconsistent to say that you’re rebellious within the acceptable boundaries. If rebellion allows us to stand out and be found by a potential mate, why hasn’t society broken down? The problem with rebellion is that it gets you mates – or it gets you fates. That is, those who can be picked out as outliers are often the ones who are separated from the herd and eaten. So how do you be rebellious enough to get a mate but not so much that you’re separated from the herd?

The LA riots following the trial of four officers for beating Rodney King were certainly a period of rebellion. Whether this was a necessary or appropriate response or not, it left 50 people dead, 2,000 injured, and damage to over 1,000 buildings with estimated costs exceeding $1 billion. During this time of rioting, there was arson, looting, beatings, and other forms of lawlessness. However, if you look carefully at the photographs of the riots, you notice something odd. Looters and arsonists parking in between the lines in parking spots in the parking lots. Even at the peak of anger and rebellion, at least some of the looters didn’t want to disregard the social expectation to park between the lines.

We want rebellion, we want change, and in this case the actors wanted to cause harm. However, they weren’t willing to tear down the fabric of their reality and abandon everything they had known. Even in their moments of lawlessness they needed the structure of society.

Why did the riots happen? The perceived injustice at the freeing of four white police officers who beat a black man that was caught on tape. (I agree that it was an injustice but that’s not the point.) For a moment, a small voice in the crowd spoke a “why” to an angry crowd. The “why” was simply “something has to change.” This resonated so clearly that the message spread and the riots were started.

The Secret to Success

The bookshelves are filled with books that purport to have the keys to business success, yet over 80% of businesses will shut their doors within their first five years. It’s not that business owners aren’t reading the books – it’s that there’s no one answer. (Though I’ll say that most business leaders don’t spend enough time trying to learn more about new techniques to make them successful.)

In Search of Excellence and Built to Last both seek to find a formula for making large businesses successful over the long term. The Halo Effect describes the works of Peters and Waterman as well as Collins as better stories. There aren’t secrets here. The companies that In Search of Excellence identifies as “winners” aren’t necessarily winners anymore. The same can be said about the companies identified as “visionary” in Built to Last. Of businesses on the Fortune 500 list in 1955, 88% were gone by 2014. While there are some companies that have survived the test of time, they’re in the very serious minority. Even well-established companies like Barings Bank can come down in an instant when people forget this “why”.

Sinek implies that the secret to success isn’t in what organizations do or even in how they do it, but that they have a central “why” that helps to align the employees around the same mission. It’s like the focusing power of a Fresnel lens on a lighthouse. It keeps all the stray light into the main beam just like having a mission has. But lots of organizations have mission statements – what makes organizations really succeed?

Maybe it’s Lencioni’s observations in The Advantage about the need to overcommunicate. Maybe mission statements for most are, as The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices suggests, simple platitudes.

Mission not Message

Many great leaders are recognized for their great messages (see Great Speeches for Better Speaking). There are numerous books that focus on refining your message and communicating more effectively. (Buy-in, Crucial Conversations, Dialogue: The Art of Thinking Together, Influencer, Infographics, Pitch Anything, Platform, Presentation Zen, Slide:ology, TED Talks, The Art of Explanation, and Trust Me: Four Steps to Authenticity and Charisma are a few.) However, what helps organizations succeed over the long term isn’t the messaging. Manipulations – and messaging – can be effective in the short term, but in the long term they’re not enough to make something last. The problem is that each manipulation leads to the next, just like an addict who needs the next fix to get past the crash from the last one.

When the mission is right – and the people are really aligned with the message – extraordinary things can happen. Heroic Leadership tells the tale of the Jesuits and their insistence on keeping the mission above the people and above the doctrine of the religion. This mission, to bring Christ’s love to others through their words and particularly their deeds, has allowed the organization to continue for over 450 years despite numerous challenges. While the Jesuits might be an extreme case, having a mission makes it much easier to make everyday decisions. By knowing what you believe – your “why” – you have a guide for all the minute decisions that have to be made every day.

Influencing Behavior

Leaders are necessarily purveyors of control. Their goal is to shape the direction of others – to lead them in the direction that the leader chooses. Their tools are sometimes described as manipulation, but sometimes their tools are inspiration. Manipulation (sometimes called motivation to avoid the negative connotations) is the tool of choice for many leaders. It’s the quick fix of a candy bar with none of the sustaining effects of a well-balanced meal.

There are plenty of books and professionals who purvey these quick fixes to your leadership problems. For instance, books like 365 Ways to Motivate and Reward Your Employees with Little or No Money are a list of techniques for motivating employees with ways that don’t need money – and you don’t have to really think about. I’m not discouraging the use of the book. It’s a useful tool, but only as a way to supplement an inspired workforce fed on a well-balanced inspirational meal. Candy is fine as a snack or a treat, but it’s not sustainable.

Manipulation

Manipulation can also take a less positive turn in the form of fear. Fear is without a doubt a powerful motivator. However, fear has a long list of negative consequences, spelled out in Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers.
Fear doesn’t have to be the boss screaming at you about how bad you’re doing or how worthless you are – though those are good examples of bad behavior. Sometimes the fear is expressed in the power of a forced exchange.

Too many Americans live paycheck-to-paycheck with no reserve for losing their jobs. Depending upon the way you count it, somewhere between 40% and 62% of Americans don’t have the ability to live without their steady paycheck. As a result, leaders can – and sometimes do – threaten folks with their job as a form of manipulation. It’s a forced exchange, money for compliance, and people don’t believe there are any other options for them. This is a form of manipulation rooted in fear – just less overtly.

There are, at the same time, manipulations which are neutral or even positive. We may all have been manipulated into wearing seatbelts – but that’s an OK manipulation because it is for our best interests (see Unsafe at Any Speed). Nudge wouldn’t call this “libertarian paternalism”, because there’s no reasonable choice.

Choices are sometimes hard for folks to make. Despite Glaser’s articulate explanation of Choice Theory, there are still many choices where there are conflicting drives and desires. Motivational Interviewing is one technique for managing these conflicted situations and are in effect a manipulation no more or less than having a chiropractor manipulate your joints.

The problem with manipulation is that there are going to be some people who are hard to control with manipulation. Perhaps they’re resistant to fear tactics. Perhaps they can see the manipulation coming. In any case, not everyone is so easily manipulated and therefore, they make manipulation hard to do.

Inspiration

The heart of inspiration isn’t our rational minds. The heart of inspiration is our heart – or in the language of Jonathan Haidt – our elephant. (See The Happiness Hypothesis for the Rider-Elephant-Path model.) Inspiration is an emotional response. It’s something that Demand describes as magnetic. It has emotional appeal. Inspiration is looking forward into the best possible future and placing a stake in the ground that this is the place we want to be.

Gratitude and Humility

One of the most inspiring traits for me are the dual traits of gratitude and humility. Being filled with gratitude is a humbling experience. It reminds you that whatever power you have should be held in service to others. (See Humilitas for this definition of humility.) Robert Greenleaf implored us to be Servant Leaders. And while his advice was great personal advice for being a better leader, it has the effect of inspiring everyone in the organization towards the humility of the leader and the mission they uphold.

If we look back at the Jesuits through the lens of Heroic Leadership, we see that St. Ignatius of Loyla was a leader with such deeply-held convictions and humility that inspired the Jesuits to be better people. The character of the leader is the inspiration that some people follow.

Many years ago, while at a National Speakers Association convention, I heard for the first time a powerful phrase. It was simply “The Privilege of the Platform.” It was said to remind the speakers there that the stage (platform) that they were standing on, and the fact that so many people were generously giving their attention, was a privilege. It was a bit of humility in an otherwise ostentatious group.

Showing Up for Inspiration

When Martin Luther King, Jr. stood at the feet of the Lincoln Memorial and gave his famous “I have a dream” speech, how many people came out for Dr. King? Officially, the number of people who turned up was 250,000. However, how many of them came up for Dr. King? In truth, we don’t know; but what we do know is most the folks who came to hear that speech came for themselves. They wanted to be identified as the kind of people who cared about civil rights, equality, and free speech. Their attendance that day said more about them and what they wanted to do rather than the following of Dr. King.

Herein is a fundamental truth. Leaders inspire people not to their cause but to live out the causes that are already within them and to attract to themselves those who have similar values.

Marketing the What

When you’re reading marketing books, there is a lot of push towards helping people with what you do. (Guerilla Marketing, Duct Tape Marketing, and The New Rules of Marketing and PR are good examples.) They’re all about helping organizations and individuals understand what you can do for them. A good sales process is about helping the prospect understand how you can make their life better. You’re looking for the pain that you can solve. (You can look at The Challenger Sale for more on the sales process.) However, what Sinek is proposing is that this is backwards. He concludes that people need to know why you’re doing what you’re doing before they know what you’re doing or how you’re doing it, so they can decide whether they care, want to pay attention, are similarly motivated as you.

Here Sinek provides some compelling examples of messages that start with why, flow through how, and end up with what you can do for a customer. Certainly, there are places where this makes sense. However, as I pondered his writing with some thought experiments, I wondered “why” a landscaper did what he did – and whether that would resonate with customers. Perhaps he wants to create relaxing spaces for everyone or he wants to be able to work outside. In either case, I don’t know that I care if I’m hiring him to mow my lawn. (Which is the work that most landscapers do because it’s steady and pays the bills.)

In my own case, I know that my “why” for technology is to make the complicated simple. In our healthcare work, we do work to prevent people from being harmed. However, my friend Paul Culmsee would challenge me that these sounds like platitudes. In his book The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices, he challenges us to reasonably disagree with a statement as a test to ensure it’s not a platitude. I’ve found some technologists who really do try to make the simple complicated – and I know from our conversations that he has as well, so there I think I’m safe.

The harder one is preventing people from being harmed. The Hippocratic oath is to do no harm. We do occasionally see providers who aren’t working in their patients’ best interests, and instead are performing useless procedures because they’re being paid fee-for-service and therefore making money only when performing services.

Does knowing what drives me cause anyone to work with me more (or less)? I don’t know. It feels like knowing this isn’t a strong motivating factor one way or the other.

Customers and Competitors

One interesting difference between our customers and our competitors is that competitors tend to see the differences between themselves and their competitors. They’re keenly aware of the differences in the offerings and what that means to the customer. This is the curse of knowledge happening. They know so much about the situation that they’re literally disconnected from the view of the customer. (See The Art of Explanation for more on the curse of knowledge.)

Customers are, however, much less sophisticated. They see a solution to their problem, and they tend to underestimate the value of the differences between products, because the differences are too nuanced and subtle for them to really understand.

Similarly, competitors, innovators, and trail blazers can’t ask customers what they want, because they don’t know. Ford is reported to have said that, had he surveyed his customers, they would have said they wanted a faster horse – not an automobile. Clearly an automobile is better than a faster horse, but the customers had no frame of reference for asking for it.

Lifting You Up

The true power of “why” isn’t in whether you can attract more customers or even in being a better leader. The true power of “why” is in giving you the willpower or grit to continue when your day-to-day life is grinding you down. (See Grit for grit and Willpower for willpower.)

I’m getting a clear picture of my “why” – of why I do what I do what I do. I don’t know whether it will help me be more successful or whether it will just bring me more peace. However, I know that I want to Start with Why and let things come as they are going to come.