Is right vs. looks right

Shane Parrish, author of the generally excellent Farnam Street blog, had a great post this morning about defensive decision making – the type of decision making that focuses on what “looks right” vs. what “is right.”

Defensive decision making is the “IBM” option. Since “no one got fired for buying an IBM,” it is intended to protect the decision maker. Organizations can often create a massive decision-consequence asymmetry in that they become so risk averse that most decisions come with small upside if they go well and large downside if something goes wrong (e.g. get fired).

So, the natural incentive is to just make the “default” decision. There is no risk to one’s reputation and it is always defensible.

This points to why so many cultures talk about “thinking out of the box” but never actually do so. It also speaks to why cultural change is very hard.

And, finally, it is a great reminder that approaching building products and services for customers with first principles thinking and hypothesis isn’t just about hiring the right people.

It involves building a culture that incentivizes attempting decisions that are right instead of rewarding those that look right.

Cleaning and insecurities

Does cleaning ever get done?

It doesn’t matter how beautifully we vacuum our home this week. We will still need to vacuum next week.

Of course, it helps that we don’t expect to ever be “done” with cleaning or washing vessels or exercising. We understand that our commitment to being clean will be tested every day of every week. It is on us to recommit, take action, reflect, and keep improving how we take action.

It turns out that dealing with our insecurities works the same way. Our trysts with imposter syndrome, our deepest insecurities, and most powerful demons never go away. They are ever present and part of who we are.

And, we must deal with them like we deal with dirt or unwashed vessels every day. Re-commit to acting from wholeness instead of our wounds, take action, reflect, and iterate.


I recently had to take our two year old to the Emergency Room. She was having breathing difficulties due to a viral infection. I had many reflections from the experience and I’m guessing a few will trickle down as part of “Parenting Saturdays” (the unofficial name of this series :-)) in the coming weeks. But, one concept I was struck by was familial responsibility.

But, before I go there, a quick public service announcement. One of our biggest lessons from the incident was to waste no time when children have breathing difficulties. Children move from “normal” to unconscious with surprising speed. Our nurse explained that delays tend to have serious consequences. We were lucky we didn’t have to deal with that.

Now, back to notes on familial responsibility. As part of her breathing difficulties combined with the strong retching reflex that kids have, she projectile vomited her day’s food in 4 spurts. 3 of them were when I was carrying her.

But, as we didn’t have a change of clothes or time, I just went with it for the next 3 hours.

Somewhat disgusting details aside, this is no big deal of course. Most parents/people will go through a lot worse for their kids/family.

That precise thought gave me pause.

Isn’t it amazing how much we’re willing to compromise, sacrifice, and endure for someone we consider family?

Why doesn’t more of that extend to the many human beings we encounter over the course of our lives?

And, perhaps more importantly, what if it did?

The HQ3 fiasco

I’ve shared a lot of nuggets from Jeff Bezos over the years on this blog. His notes on the importance of being open to changing your mind, on strategic patience and tactical impatience, on using long form memos for business decisions, to name just a few, have all had a big impact on how I think and operate.

As someone who admires much of his thought process and approach to things, I found Amazon’s and Bezos’ approach to their second (and now apparently third) HQ deeply disappointing.

NYU Professor Scott Galloway outlined the many issues with this fiasco in his weekly note today. 2 excerpts –

Amazon’s HQ2 search was not a contest but a con. Amazon will soon have 3 HQs. And guess what? The Bezos family owns homes in all 3 cities. And, you’ll never believe it, the new HQs (if you can call them that) will be within a bike ride, or quick Uber, from Bezos’s homes in DC and NYC. The middle finger on Amazon’s other hand came into full view when they announced they were awarding their HQ to not one, but two cities. So, really, the search, and hyped media topic, should have been called “Two More Offices.” Only that’s not compelling and doesn’t sell. Would that story have become a news obsession for the last 14 months, garnering Amazon hundreds of millions in unearned media?

We are not only witnessing the 1% pull further away from the 99% in our hunger games economy, but certain metros begin to pull away from the rest. Of more than 400 metros in the US, five account for over 20% of the growth. And, you guessed it, two of those five are DC and NYC. This is not Amazon’s problem, but this was an opportunity to do something extraordinary. Locating HQ2 in Detroit would have been transformative.

Scott Galloway’s conclusion is withering in its assessment of this move that displayed canny PR and negotiation and a disappointing display of capitalism taken to its extreme all at once.

I keep going back to a note from Seth Godin on capitalism – capitalism exists to maximize civilization and not the other way around.

This was a classic case of the other way around.

Written selling

Most non-sales job descriptions underemphasize the amount of selling required as part of our jobs. And, of all the selling we do, the ability to do “written selling” is, ironically, under-sold.

Written selling is all the writing we do on a daily basis – via long form documents, emails, and messaging conversations – to persuade others on the merits of whatever it is we’re selling.

We could be selling belief in a vision in a long form doc, the fact that we’re on top of the crisis-of-the-day in an email exchange, and that the task at hand is the best use of our teammate’s time over a message exchange.

When we picture selling, we picture the verbal version. But, in today’s workplace, our ability to write persuasively is a high leverage skill.

Lessons on change from making yoghurt

Our family is from a part of India where plain yoghurt is a key part of the diet. Yoghurt is a great counter to the heat and, thus, a staple. So, I grew up a big yoghurt fan and that continues to this day.

As a result, I “make” yoghurt 2-3 times a week. I put make in quotes because it makes itself. But, there’s still a lightweight process involved. And, that requires me to heat the milk till it almost boils over, allow it to cool down a bit, pour a bit of existing yoghurt, and leave it to do its thing over the next day or so.

This process turns out to be very instructive in driving change in ourselves –
1. It helps to face the heat and be under a bit of pressure that pushes us to recognize the importance of change (too much heat causes other spillover effects).

2. Next, we must give ourselves a bit of time to partially recover from the period of intensity and use that time to reflect on the kind of change we’d like to drive.

3. Then, it helps to find a role model for that change – either a person who embodies the behavior or a book or a course that teaches us the way – and spend mental time with that role model.

4. Finally, give it time.

Lots to learn from yoghurt, we have.

Bad manager

In a conversation with a leader of an organization recently, I learnt that her list of the three most impactful people in her life features a bad manager – the worst manager she’s ever had.

She said the experience was so bad that she still woke up from bed many years later determined to create the opposite experience for anyone who worked for her. She is known for her ability to lead and manage people now – so, the experience clearly worked out in the long run. :-)

But, it speaks to the interesting thing about bad experiences. Understanding them always involves holding two truths together. On the one hand, it is natural to work to avoid the ones that are avoidable. On the other hand, their presence can both be instructive and provide the sort of perspective that helps us appreciate good experiences.

Perhaps the best way to approach tough situations lies in embracing this contradiction. Do your best to ensure good outcomes – but, don’t beat yourself up if they don’t turn out as you’d expected. If you take the time to reflect and learn from the pain, it more than pays off in the long run.