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Posted on: Friday, June 12, 2015 by Rajiv Popat

Busting Self Help Cliches with Data And Science.

Most self-help books contain scientifically non-verifiable advice of how to be successful in life dispensed by self-help gurus who became successful in life by dispensing advice that was --- scientifically non verifiable.

Over a period of time the Self-Help industry has created clichés that have often done as much harm as they have done good. I can't even begin to guess just how many entrepreneurs burn their hands trying out the whole 'follow your passion' cliché pushed out by self help books around the globe.

The power of positive thinking is another such cliché. Most self help books out there seem to recommend that readers should push negative thoughts out of their brains and focus on positive thoughts. It's one of those ideas that was articulately written in one self-help book; which sold a million copies because the audience liked the sound of it. Because it sold a million copies other self-help authors echoed the advice and very soon the entire self-help industry was pushing the cliché as an inevitable truth of the universe with very little science or evidence to support the hypothesis. 

In his rather scientific book, 59 seconds - Think a little, change a lot, Professor Richard Wiseman talks at-length the kind of negative impact these non-scientific feel-good hypothesis can have. He explains:

The problem is that the advice offered in some self-help books and courses is at odds with the results of scientific research. Take, for example, the power of positive thinking. Does the road to happiness really depend on people’s being able to simply push negative thoughts out of their mind? Actually, research suggests that such thought suppression may be far more likely to increase, rather than decrease, misery. In the mid-1980s Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner chanced upon an obscure but intriguing quote from Dostoyevsky’s Winter Notes on Summer Impressions: “Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.” Wegner decided to carry out a simple experiment to discover if this was true. Each person from a group of willing volunteers was made to sit alone in a room and told to think about anything, but NOT to imagine Dostoyevsky’s white bear. Everyone was then asked to ring a bell each time the banned bear sprang to mind. Within moments a cacophony of bells indicated that Dostoyevsky was right—attempting to suppress certain thoughts makes people obsess on the very topic that they are trying to avoid.

Richard goes on to explain how these ideas like forced positivity thinking (which are not tested, backed by science or any research what so ever) can actually end up doing more harm than good in the real world:

Other work has shown how this effect operates in real life, with one study, conducted by Jennifer Borton and Elizabeth Casey at Hamilton College in New York State, providing a dramatic demonstration of how it influences people’s moods and self-esteem.8 Borton and Casey asked a group of people to describe their most upsetting thought about themselves. The researchers then had half of the group spend the next eleven days trying to push this thought out of their minds, while the remaining participants were asked to carry on with life as usual. At the end of each day, everyone indicated the degree to which they had dwelled upon their upsetting thought, and rated their mood, anxiety level, and self-esteem. The results were conceptually similar to those obtained by Wegner’s “white bear” experiment. The group attempting to actively suppress their negative thoughts actually thought more about them. Compared to those going about their business as usual, the suppression group also rated themselves as more anxious, more depressed, and having lower self-esteem. More than twenty years of research have demonstrated that this paradoxical phenomenon occurs in many different aspects of everyday life, showing, for example, that asking dieters not to think about chocolate causes them to consume more of it and asking the public not to elect fools to positions in government encourages them to vote for George Bush.

The point here isn't that forced positive thinking can do you more harm than good. The point here also isn't that 95% of all self help books out there are bullshit. The point I'm trying to make is completely different.

As geeks we have an intimate relationship with data. We deal with it in huge quantities; we build tools to visualize it; we manage it, we gather it, we find it and we draw conclusions from it. As professionals we are also fairly scientific. We probably exercise more cause-effect relationship and pattern finding in our lives than any other group of professionals on this planet. Every conversation we have with our compiler through our code is built on this cause effect relationship. Every bug we debug builds on the same foundation.

Like it or not science and data are two best tools that we as geeks have at our disposal - even when it comes to our own personal development; and if you aren't using the best tools at your disposal by questioning every self-help book, tip or advice that you come across; how are you really developing yourself?

If asking questions has been the time-tested way of growing for human species, just why do we let our self help gurus off the hook by accepting and following advice that is neither true nor scientifically verifiable? Why don't we ask for evidence and proof of effectiveness for every idea that we adapt in our lifestyle?

After all, the general appeal, popularity or feel good factor of a typical, safe, well accepted idea has no direct correlation to it's correctness; and if we as geeks and nerds don't question the validity of the ideas thrown at us, who will?

So the next time someone throws an idea that you think of adapting in your life - don't forget to check what the science and data surrounding that idea tells you. As a geek that's not just your responsibility; it's how you live you life.

posted on Friday, June 12, 2015 6:22:00 PM UTC by Rajiv Popat  #    Comments [0]
Posted on: Wednesday, June 10, 2015 by Rajiv Popat

Fake It Till You Become It.

I've talked about how a lot of programmers and artists go through the imposter syndrome - or put simply, feel like phonies.

While it's easy to cringe at words like Phony or Fake which seem to carry inherent negative connotation; it's hard to ask more honest and introspective questions about the realities of being a phony or faking it.

Scientists for example know that the mere act of faking a smile by sticking a pencil between your teeth; makes you rate a cartoon funnier than it is. Social Scientists also know that synthetic fake happiness can be just as real as real happiness.

If Faking it is so beneficial, why don't we embrace it?

Amy Cuddy, talks about the science of faking it till you become it in her popular TED Talk but what is even more interesting than the science is her own story of faking her way to becoming successful in her academic career. She explains:

When I was 19, I was in a really bad car accident. I was thrown out of a car, rolled several times. I was thrown from the car. And I woke up in a head injury rehab ward, and I had been withdrawn from college, and I learned that my I.Q. had dropped by two standard deviations, which was very traumatic. I knew my I.Q. because I had identified with being smart, and I had been called gifted as a child. So I'm taken out of college, I keep trying to go back. They say, "You're not going to finish college. Just, you know, there are other things for you to do, but that's not going to work out for you." So I really struggled with this, and I have to say, having your identity taken from you, your core identity, and for me it was being smart, having that taken from you, there's nothing that leaves you feeling more powerless than that. So I felt entirely powerless. I worked and worked, and I got lucky, and worked, and got lucky, and worked.

Eventually I graduated from college. It took me four years longer than my peers, and I convinced someone, my angel advisor, Susan Fiske, to take me on, and so I ended up at Princeton, and I was like - "I am not supposed to be here!" - "I am an impostor!" - And the night before my first-year talk (the first-year talk at Princeton is a 20-minute talk to 20 people -That's it) - I was so afraid of being found out the next day that I called her and said, "I'm quitting." - and she was like, "You are not quitting, because I took a gamble on you, and you're staying. You're going to stay, and this is what you're going to do. You are going to fake it. You're going to do every talk that you ever get asked to do. You're just going to do it and do it and do it, even if you're terrified and just paralyzed and having an out-of-body experience, until you have this moment where you say, 'Oh my gosh, I'm doing it. Like, I have become this. I am actually doing this.'" So that's what I did.

In her video with an emotional end Amy describes how she not only used the "fake it till you become it" hypothesis for her own advantage but also used it to uplift another student.

It's easy to attach negativity to words like Phony and Fake - but it is when you embrace these words and dissect their true power and potential - that you realize how being a fake or phony can actually be empowering; especially if you keep showing up and continue to fake it till you become it.

posted on Wednesday, June 10, 2015 8:41:07 PM UTC by Rajiv Popat  #    Comments [0]
Posted on: Monday, June 8, 2015 by Rajiv Popat

Cookie Cutter Vs. Improvised Support

Why does every call center have to sound, look and feel like all other call centers? Why does ever support call from practically all companies out there, has to look, feel and sound like the support call from all other companies?

When Tony Hsieh started out with Zappos the idea was to build call centers with no scripts and empowered employees who would go out of their way to help customers even  in situations where they really didn't have to help. In his book delivering happiness Tony explains the power of having something as simple as a support team that would really support customers and be nice to them:

A lot of people may think it’s strange that an Internet company is so focused on the telephone, when only about 5 percent of our sales happen through the telephone. In fact, most of our phone calls don’t even result in sales. But what we’ve found is that on average, every customer contacts us at least once sometime during his or her lifetime, and we just need to make sure that we use that opportunity to create a lasting memory.

The majority of phone calls don’t result in an immediate order. Sometimes a customer may be calling because it’s her first time returning an item, and she just wants a little help stepping through the process. Other times, a customer may call because there’s a wedding coming up this weekend and he wants a little fashion advice. And sometimes, we get customers who call simply because they’re a little lonely and want someone to talk to.

In his book, Tony goes on to describe the kind of powerful experiences truly empowered support staff can create in the minds of the customers:

I’m reminded of a time when I was in Santa Monica, California, a few years ago at a Skechers sales conference.

After a long night of bar-hopping, a small group of us headed up to someone’s hotel room to order some food. My friend from Skechers tried to order a pepperoni pizza from the room-service menu, but was disappointed to learn that the hotel we were staying at did not deliver hot food after 11:00 PM. We had missed the deadline by several hours.

In our inebriated state, a few of us cajoled her into calling Zappos to try to order a pizza. She took us up on our dare, turned on the speakerphone, and explained to the (very) patient Zappos rep that she was staying in a Santa Monica hotel and really craving a pepperoni pizza, that room service was no longer delivering hot food, and that she wanted to know if there was anything Zappos could do to help.

The Zappos rep was initially a bit confused by the request, but she quickly recovered and put us on hold. She returned two minutes later, listing the five closest places in the Santa Monica area that were still open and delivering pizzas at that time.

Now, truth be told, I was a little hesitant to include this story because I don’t actually want everyone who reads this book to start calling Zappos and ordering pizza. But I just think it’s a fun story to illustrate the power of not having scripts in your call center and empowering your employees to do what’s right for your brand, no matter how unusual or bizarre the situation.

As for my friend from Skechers? After that phone call, she’s now a customer for life.

You would think that Zappos succeeding with this innovative idea for support would prompt other companies to step up and change their support centers; but in the larger scheme of things, support still remains a cookie cutter solution based industry.

I continue to be absolutely amazed at how really small startups who can support their customers with two cell phones; go out of their way to setup up these elaborate automated voice systems which leads their customers through countless 'Press X to do Y' options.

I continue to be amazed how not one support center actually has a well defined way to route your call to the same executive instead of having to repeat your problem / story to a different executive every single time you call up regarding the same incident.

What made Zappos support work was that it wasn't cookie cutter. It was improvised. But improvisation is hard. Improvisation takes serious effort. And improvisation is risky. Cookie cutter support however is easy; cookie cutter is well established; and cookie cutter is safe... which by the way are  exactly the qualities that make it, risker than risky

posted on Monday, June 8, 2015 7:49:16 PM UTC by Rajiv Popat  #    Comments [0]
Posted on: Friday, June 5, 2015 by Rajiv Popat

The Real Story Of Passionate Success.

What can a guy who has failed his entire life teach you about being passionate about your career? A lot; especially when that guy happens to be a guy who failed his way to success and ended up giving this to the world:

Scott Adams is not just the creator of Dilbert but in his own words: a professional simplifier.

I've talked about the perils of the passion hypothesis but Scott's dissection and simplification of the passion hypothesis, in his book: How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, is blunt and yet, shockingly real (like most of his comic strips).

In his book, Scott grabs the passion hypothesis by its horns and throws it flat on the ground, using a pinch of humor with some bitter sweet reality. Scott explains how passion is overrated in today's world and how it's nothing more than bullshit:

You often hear advice from successful people that you should “follow your passion.” That sounds perfectly reasonable the first time you hear it. Passion will presumably give you high energy, high resistance to rejection, and high determination. Passionate people are more persuasive, too. Those are all good things, right?

Here’s the counterargument: When I was a commercial loan officer for a large bank in San Francisco, my boss taught us that you should never make a loan to someone who is following his passion. For example, you don’t want to give money to a sports enthusiast who is starting a sports store to pursue his passion for all things sporty. That guy is a bad bet, passion and all. He’s in business for the wrong reason.

My boss, who had been a commercial lender for over thirty years, said the best loan customer is one who has no passion whatsoever, just a desire to work hard at something that looks good on a spreadsheet. Maybe the loan customer wants to start a dry-cleaning store or invest in a fast-food franchise—boring stuff. That’s the person you bet on. You want the grinder, not the guy who loves his job.

The argument Scott makes is that the individual who are driven by their passion often lose their head and take irrational decisions when left to make a choice between realities and their whimsical dreams and so-called passions. The ones who are passionate and are not grinders are even worse.

Scott provides a very compelling argument about why Passion sells in today's world and why so many self-help Guru's and even successful individuals (like Steve Jobs) sell passion. Scott explains:

Passionate people who fail don’t get a chance to offer their advice to the rest of us. But successful passionate people are writing books and answering interview questions about their secrets for success every day.

Naturally those successful people want you to believe that success is a product of their awesomeness, but they also want to retain some humility. You can’t be humble and say, “I succeeded because I am far smarter than the average person.”

But you can say your passion was a key to your success, because everyone can be passionate about something or other. Passion sounds more accessible. If you’re dumb, there’s not much you can do about it, but passion is something we think anyone can generate in the right circumstances. Passion feels very democratic. It is the people’s talent, available to all.

What's really impressive about Scott's writing is his open hearted honest confessions about how most success (including his own) works:

It’s easy to be passionate about things that are working out, and that distorts our impression of the importance of passion. I’ve been involved in several dozen business ventures over the course of my life, and each one made me excited at the start. You might even call it passion. The ones that didn’t work out—and that would be most of them—slowly drained my passion as they failed. The few that worked became more exciting as they succeeded.

For example, when I invested in a restaurant with an operating partner, my passion was sky-high. And on day one, when there was a line of customers down the block, I was even more passionate. In later years, as the business got pummeled, my passion evolved into frustration and annoyance. The passion disappeared.

On the other hand, Dilbert started out as just one of many get-rich schemes I was willing to try. When it started to look as if it might be a success, my passion for cartooning increased because I realized it could be my golden ticket. In hindsight, it looks as if the projects I was most passionate about were also the ones that worked. But objectively, my passion level moved with my success. Success caused passion more than passion caused success.

Grab a copy of the book and just like you see a directionless seeker in Steve Jobs in the book Little Bets, you'll see Scott make literally dozens of little bets in his life and nearly failing badly and royally in most of them.

By the time you're done with the book all  you can do is wonder how much more inspired we would be to work hard; and just how many stupid startup disasters would the world avoid, if only more successful people started keeping their humility aside, stopped using politically correct democratic clichés like Passion, and talked about the real ingredients of successful life. At-least we would avoid discussions like these in our offices:

If you're thinking of dropping out of your job without a concrete residual income and a solid real life validation of your plan just because you want to follow your passion, don't you think that you've been reading too many self-help books lately?

Why not give a thought to the thought that your passion for your new found business, as Scott Adams puts it in artistically exaggerated style - may really be nothing more than... Bullshit?

posted on Friday, June 5, 2015 10:02:36 PM UTC by Rajiv Popat  #    Comments [0]
Posted on: Wednesday, June 3, 2015 by Rajiv Popat

Feeling Like A Phony Is Fine. Not Showing Up Isn't.

When I started writing my first book I decided to take a style of writing that was a tad bit confrontational. Career advice, especially one that involves self-introspection is like bitter medicine and when you are trying to convince the world that their problems are their own fault, you have to assume a tone that is (for lack of a better word) authoritative.

When I picked that confrontational style of writing, little did I realize that the cloud of self-introspection and doubt would haunt me quite literally with every chapter that I would add to the book. I mean, who was I to give career advice to anyone?

Maybe my dozen+ promotions in the last 14 years were just a rather strange coming together of luck and timing. Maybe all my hikes were just a result of the fact that I happened to be in the right industry, at the right place with the right teams. I am not the richest person on the planet, nor am I the smartest. I am not the most successful person to have walked this planet either. In my past, I've been part of one colossal failure and have run away from one entire project while it headed towards disaster. And now by assuming a tone of a person who knew what he was talking about, wasn't I being what you would call a... phony?

Scott Hanselman's post on the topic comes as close to it as possible in terms of articulating the kind of thoughts every artist has to confront and conquer. Scott explains:

I've got 30 domains and I've only done something awesome with 3 of them. Sometimes when I log into my DNS manager I just see 27 failures. I think to myself, there's 27 potential businesses, 27 potential cool open source projects just languishing. If you knew anything you'd have made those happen. What a phony.

I hit Zero Email a week ago, now I'm at 122 today in my Inbox and it's stressing me out. And I teach people how to manage their inboxes. What a phony.

When I was 21 I was untouchable. I thought I was a gift to the world and you couldn't tell me anything. The older I get the more I realize that I'm just never going to get it all, and I don't think as fast as I used to. What a phony.

I try to learn a new language each year and be a Polyglot Programmer but I can feel F# leaking out of my head as I type this and I still can't get my head around really poetic idiomatic Ruby. What a phony.

Every creative person worth his salt feels like a phony sometimes. Most creative individuals feel like that with most creative endeavors they undertake. The interesting thing about this weird combination of self-introspection and self-doubt is that it's a two edged sword. It can motivate you and push you forward. Or it can cripple you and cast clouds of anxiety which can forever stop you from drawing your art in bold colors and confident strokes and just push you towards the side of safe.

When it comes to our creative endeavors, each artist goes through his / her own bouts of ups and downs. At times the stars align, everything falls in place, your 10000 hours of hard work results in flow that ascends you to a level that makes you shine and others look up to you like you're a reflection of some form of excellence.

On other occasions your work bombs, the time just isn't right, you seem unconfident and you fall plat on your face embarrassing yourself and others who laid their trust on you. You question your own credentials and capabilities and you feel like a Phony. Elizabeth Gilbert describes this dilemma in her life-changing TED talk:

Because in the end it's like this, OK -- centuries ago in the deserts of North Africa, people used to gather for these moonlight dances of sacred dance and music that would go on for hours and hours, until dawn. They were always magnificent, because the dancers were professionals and they were terrific, right? But every once in a while, very rarely, something would happen, and one of these performers would actually become transcendent. And I know you know what I'm talking about, because I know you've all seen, at some point in your life, a performance like this. It was like time would stop, and the dancer would sort of step through some kind of portal and he wasn't doing anything different than he had ever done, 1,000 nights before, but everything would align. And all of a sudden, he would no longer appear to be merely human. He would be lit from within, and lit from below and all lit up on fire with divinity.

And when this happened, back then, people knew it for what it was, you know, they called it by its name. They would put their hands together and they would start to chant, "Allah, Allah, Allah, God, God, God." That's God, you know. Curious historical footnote: when the Moors invaded southern Spain, they took this custom with them and the pronunciation changed over the centuries from "Allah, Allah, Allah," to "Olé, olé, olé," which you still hear in bullfights and in flamenco dances. In Spain, when a performer has done something impossible and magic, "Allah, olé, olé, Allah, magnificent, bravo," incomprehensible, there it is -- a glimpse of God. Which is great, because we need that.

But, the tricky bit comes the next morning, for the dancer himself, when he wakes up and discovers that it's Tuesday at 11 a.m., and he's no longer a glimpse of God. He's just an aging mortal with really bad knees, and maybe he's never going to ascend to that height again. And maybe nobody will ever chant God's name again as he spins, and what is he then to do with the rest of his life? This is hard. This is one of the most painful reconciliations to make in a creative life.

The problem here isn't just about feeling like a Phony. The problem here is that we often confuse having an opinion or telling a story, or giving an awesome performance once with having authority or being an expert who has to be right and awesome all the time.

When you write a book, build software or ship any creative work, you are expressing an opinion or telling a story. You may express your opinion strongly, or tell your story articulately or you may give an awesome performance once - but that doesn't make you an authority or an expert who will never fail again. The problem is; the world sees you as an expert; when you know deep down inside that you are still an aging mortal with inherent limitations and flaws, walking down the path of life long learning, failing every now and then and learning from those failures. Suddenly the burden of failing seems higher than it has ever felt before. Suddenly the repercussions of sounding like an idiot seem huge.

When you are dancing the fine dance of drawing in bold strokes and also being authentic in your self-introspection, self-doubt is a part of the game; especially when you know that you are going to fail again and again and again and now that you've been awesome once, twice or a few times, your next failure is just going to grab that much more attention.

In the same talk Elizabeth Gilbert talks about a way to deal with this dilemma:

This is how I've started to think, and this is certainly how I've been thinking in the last few months as I've been working on the book that will soon be published, as the dangerously, frighteningly over-anticipated follow up to my freakish success.

And what I have to sort of keep telling myself when I get really psyched out about that is don't be afraid. Don't be daunted. Just do your job. Continue to show up for your piece of it, whatever that might be. If your job is to dance, do your dance.

If the divine, cockeyed genius assigned to your case decides to let some sort of wonderment be glimpsed, for just one moment through your efforts, then "Olé!" And if not, do your dance anyhow. And "Olé!" to you, nonetheless. I believe this and I feel that we must teach it. "Olé!" to you, nonetheless, just for having the sheer human love and stubbornness to keep showing up.

And so in a world where most of us fail most of the time and yet we continue to celebrate success and use it as a Metric, everyone is a phony at some level or the other. The question isn't if you are a phony. The question really is, do you keep showing up. In the end my book was completed and published. It also ended up being in the Kindle Best sellers list for sometime and received a few good reviews; but I'm still not certain that I'm not a Phony. What I am happy about though, is that I showed up.

posted on Wednesday, June 3, 2015 7:21:37 PM UTC by Rajiv Popat  #    Comments [1]
Posted on: Monday, June 1, 2015 by Rajiv Popat

You Are Your User.

As artists we are inherently programmed to love our craft. We blog, we code, we start weekend projects and we tell ourselves stories like - If you build it they will come.

The 2014 figures published by NetCraft don't seem to support the - if you build it they will come - hypothesis. The numbers are discouraging - demotivating even.

If your site depends on volume of users to be successful, here is how your chances of success have declined over time:

If you go by averages and don't believe in the dream of the outlier your chances of building anything that gets any attention by a considerable number of users were done and dusted by 1998, which is when we went to each site having less than 100 users.

As of 2014 we are at a depressing number of 3 users per website.

But wait, we've not just lost users to other competing sites. We've lost their attention too. This survey for example seems to suggest an average bounce rate of about half for your visitors:

As a rule of thumb, a bounce rate in the range of 26 to 40 percent is excellent. 41 to 55 percent is roughly average. 56 to 70 percent is higher than average, but may not be cause for alarm depending on the website. Anything over 70 percent is disappointing for everything outside of blogs, news, events, etc.

Assuming you have an average of 3 users and half of them drop out within seconds of hitting your website, you're left with 1.5 users. But then of course you can't have half a user so let's round that down and you're left with ---- 1 user.

There are two ways to look at this data. The grumpy pessimist in you can look at the data and get depressed. The dumb optimist in you can continue to blissfully dream that some day you will build your own FaceBook. But the artist in you probably knows that 1 visitor. The only visitor who will really use and benefit first from your product --- You.

And so the next time you pick up a project, either have a bunch of paying customers ready or build something You yourself would love to use for an extended period of time. After all, in most cases, particularly when it comes to innovative products and side projects that you might be working on, You are Your User.

posted on Monday, June 1, 2015 8:32:51 PM UTC by Rajiv Popat  #    Comments [0]
Posted on: Friday, May 29, 2015 by Rajiv Popat

From Suck To Non Suck.

Author, Speaker and legendary Evangelist Guy Kawasaki, is bold, loud and un-ashamed about shipping revolutionary stuff that is basically... crappy.

Guy is famously known to say:

Don't worry, be crappy. Revolutionary means you ship and then test... Lots of things made the first Mac in 1984 a piece of crap - but it was a revolutionary piece of crap.

I've written extensively about the Don't Worry Be Crappy Philosophy before. The central premise of this idea is that it's okay to roll out a new idea before it's fully baked without worrying about the fact that it's not perfect yet.

After one year of working on my first book I fought an internal battle with myself questioning if the book was good enough to go live. After over two months of proof reading and editing I realized that I was getting to defensive about my work. It was time to let go and ship. And even though the book made it to best sellers list in its category for a few days and received a very good response, I still go back and read the book and push out updates to it every other week in an attempt to make it better.

The beauty of shipping creative work (whether it's a movie, book or code) is that you are never done; but you still ship and when you do that you have an opportunity to get real world feedback from real customers. You can then intently listen to that feedback and change fast.

In Pixar this process is often referred to as the process of going from suck to non-suck. Author Peter Sims describes Pixar's philosophy of throwing out something that sucks and then blazing from suck to non-suck really fast in his book, Little Bets - How breakthrough ideas emerge from small discoveries. Peter describes:

Pixar’s experience with Finding Nemo in 2001 was just one example. The film came at a critical time for the company, too, since Disney was considering its option to renew its contract with Pixar. And after six years in the movie business, Pixar hadn’t had a bust. Disney’s CEO, Michael Eisner, was given a sneak preview of how the movie was unfolding nine months before its release.

As David Price recounts in The Pixar Touch, Eisner emailed the Disney board: "Yesterday we saw for the second time the new Pixar movie 'Finding Nemo' that comes out next May. This will be a reality check for those guys. It's okay, but nowhere near as good as their previous films. Of course they think it is great."

Eisner wanted to wait until the film released (and failed) before conducting further negotiations with Steve Jobs about renewing the Disney/Pixar coproduction deal.

Eisner wasn’t wrong, per se, at least about the state of the movie itself. Finding Nemo needed dramatic improvement. However, his assessment severely missed Pixar's ability to recognize the issues, iterate, and improve. The team, led by director Andrew Stanton, understood the problems, including the fact that the movie had at least one too many plotlines and endured a frantic nine months to fix them.

Finding Nemo would, of course, become another huge Pixar hit, validating Ed Catmull’s belief that it’ s better to fix problems than prevent errors.

Look around you and you'll realize that most masters in their fields have at one point or the other in their life produced stuff that's crappy to begin with. Getting paralyzed in search of perfection won't make you a master of your field - failing early, failing often and then recovering from those failures even faster might.

It is a recurring trait you see in individuals and companies that ship remarkable products. They all go from suck to non-suck. They just do it way faster than you and I do it today. And That's a craft we should all try to learn, practice and make a part of our lifestyle. People have short memories and no-one is going to remember the crap you shipped, as long as you can take real feedback and move from suck to non-suck... really fast.

posted on Friday, May 29, 2015 8:30:02 PM UTC by Rajiv Popat  #    Comments [1]
Posted on: Wednesday, May 27, 2015 by Rajiv Popat

Trusting Your Best To Give Their Best.

(And the Art Of Keep Sending Them Up)

Anyone who practices their craft fails. We'd all love to learn from other people's mistake, but when you become really good at something you slowly start experimenting with the basic laws of the field. The laws that not many before you have broken. Suddenly, you are in unchartered territories. The mistakes you make now are not mistakes that a lot of others have made; and there are not many examples to learn from. Your only option is taking small baby steps of experimentation and embracing failure when it shows up.

Awesome organizations and companies usually become awesome by embracing craftsmen who have the courage to charter into this unchartered territories, take calculated risk, sometimes fail and then look back and learn from the stories of these failures.

Most organization obsessed with the line of best fit may not directly fire someone for failing in a venture or a project, but penalties of failures are usually high in these cultures.

Fail a project once and see how your company quietly removes you from the next mission critical project the organization is going to take up. Go through a rough time in your personal life, slip up on a couple of tasks and see how the next collection of mission critical tasks are quietly and politely passed on to someone else.

Embracing failures and putting your trust on the best of your team members is not something that requires deep intellectual and philosophical conversations. Most of the times, a simple mind-set of "keep sending him up" is good enough:

Trust in the best of people you work with isn't conveyed by delivering talks of embracing failure in company get together and all-hands-meetings. This trust is often tested by how much responsibility you give to the best of your builders when they have failed colossally. The story Pixar and how Steve Jobs, Yet Catmull and John Lesseter put their faith in Brad Bird is a classic story of this trust rightly placed. Author Peter Sims tells the story in his book, Little Bets - How breakthrough ideas emerge from small discoveries. Peter explains:

Perhaps no story I heard about Pixar exemplifies the growth mind-set at the company as clearly as that of the making of The Incredibles. When Pixar recruited Brad Bird as a director, Bird was coming off directing a Warner Brothers film called The Iron Giant that was a box-office disappointment. Pixar, meanwhile, already had three big hits. Yet Catmull, Steve Jobs, and John Lasseter (Pixar’s creative lead) told Bird, "The only thing we're afraid of is complacency — feeling like we have it all figured out.

We want you to come shake things up. We will give you a good argument if we think what we’ re doing doesn't make sense, but if you can convince us, we'll do things in a different way , "Bird told Stanford professors Robert Sutton and Hayagreeva Rao. "For a company that has had nothing but success to invite a guy who had
just come off a failure and say , 'Go ahead, mess with our heads, shake it up'; when do you run into that?"

And this trust is not just about words and tag lines like 'shake it up'. It is about empowering your builders. And so when you do place this trust in your builders, they will in return expect that you put your money where you mouth is; just what Bird expected from Pixar:

Bird would soon test that invitation with his ambitious ideas for The Incredibles.  His vision for the film had so many characters and sets that members of  Pixar’s technical team believed it would take ten years and cost $500 million to make.  "How are we going to possibly do this? " they asked.

But continue this trust and it is contagious. It even helps you find the rebels and the troublemakers in your own organization who have the potential to produce outputs your organization has never ever produced before. How the story of making of Incredibles ends is a classic example of this:

A determined Bird implemented a number of changes in Pixar's process in order to do so, from which Pixar learned a great deal. In order to help shake things up, one thing Bird did was to seek out people within Pixar whom he described as black sheep, whose unconventional views could help find solutions to the problems. "A lot of them were malcontents because they saw different ways of doing things," Bird said. "We gave black sheep a chance to prove their theories, and we changed the way a number of things are done here."

Among those changes, they altered the approach to storyboards and computer graphics standards. For example, they created what Bird called super elaborate storyboards that emulated camera movement to show which parts of the images of scenes needed to be perfect (e. g. , have fine-grained detail) and which ones didn't. This allowed the animators to focus their efforts more on the aspects of the movie that required the most attention, such as the action scenes, which were the primary drivers of the film's plot.

They eventually made the film for less money per minute than Pixar's previous movie, Finding Nemo, despite significantly more complexity, including three times as many sets.

"You want people to be involved and engaged," Bird said. "What they have in common is a restless, probing nature: 'I want to get to the problem. There's something I want to do. ' If you had thermal glasses, you could see heat coming off them.

The story is inspirational and like most stories of genuine builders it's not made up of deep philosophies. Just a simple idea of placing your trust in people who deserve your trust and empowering them to make a difference and then if they fail once in a while - keep sending them up there.

How does that stack up with your organization? How does that stack up with your own personal management style? How do you deal with otherwise immensely talented and hard working people in your team who are having a rough time in their lives or have just been hit by a colossal failure?

Do you write them off and in an attempt to replace them like a cog in a machine slowly hand over their responsibilities over to other cogs, or do you place your trust in them? Do you see them as losers or do you see them as individuals who are capable of listening to the stories of their own failures and learning from these stories?

In really simple words - do you keep sending them up there?

Because if you don't the loss is all yours - Your best builders are what makes or breaks your organization. Of course they can recover from failures, but when you start seeing them as losers because of a failure or two... eventually, both you and your organization loose.

posted on Wednesday, May 27, 2015 8:42:23 PM UTC by Rajiv Popat  #    Comments [0]