What did he do?

When we hear someone was involved in something with a bad outcome, our default question tends to be – “What did he do?”

Our default assumption is that what someone did caused the bad outcome.

But, more often than not, it is how we do things, not what we do, that causes issues. Bad performance is more often a result of questionable attitude than questionable skill.

When in doubt, look at the “how.”

A 2 minute visual

Just as you are getting out of bed, consider spending an extra 2 minutes doing the following –

  1. What are you seeking to accomplish today – at work and in life? (this generally involves a visual)
  2. What is one learning you’d like to keep in mind as you go through the day?
  3. What are you thankful for?

Most folks love the extra couple of minutes in bed (thank you, snooze button). Hopefully, this adds value to those extra minutes.

We are the questions we ask. And, a quick 2 minute exercise to ask these questions, or others that you find energizing, can go a long way in getting the day started right.

Admitting ignorance

Yuval Harari’s Sapiens is a fascinating book. I’ve been making slow progress over the past 3 months as there is so much to absorb.

One of the more fascinating pieces (in my opinion) is his analysis on science. In Yuval’s words, “the innovation in modern science was to admit ignorance.” It is a simple and, yet, profound idea and speaks to continuous tension between religions and scientific inquiry.

Here’s an interesting excerpt about how the act of admitting ignorance shaped the world we know –

The crucial turning point came in 1492, when Christopher Columbus sailed westward from Spain, seeking a new route to East Asia. Columbus still believed in the old ‘complete’ world maps (see below). Using them, Columbus calculated that Japan should have been located about 7,000 kilometres west of Spain. In fact, more than 20,000 kilometres and an entire unknown continent separate East Asia from Spain. On 12 October 1492, at about 2:00 a.m., Columbus’ expedition collided with the unknown continent. Juan Rodriguez Bermejo, watching from the mast of the ship Pinta, spotted an island in what we now call the Bahamas, and shouted ‘Land! Land!’

Columbus believed he had reached a small island off the East Asian coast. He called the people he found there ‘Indians’ because he thought he had landed in the Indies – what we now call the East Indies or the Indonesian archipelago. Columbus stuck to this error for the rest of his life. The idea that he had discovered a completely unknown continent was inconceivable for him and for many of his generation. For thousands of years, not only the greatest thinkers and scholars but also the infallible Scriptures had known only Europe, Africa and Asia. Could they all have been wrong? Could the Bible have missed half the world? It would be as if in 1969, on its way to the moon, Apollo 11 had crashed into a hitherto unknown moon circling the earth, which all previous observations had somehow failed to spot. In his refusal to admit ignorance, Columbus was still a medieval man. He was convinced he knew the whole world, and even his momentous discovery failed to convince him otherwise.

(A European world map from 1459 (Europe is in the top left corner). The map is filled with details, even when depicting areas that were completely unfamiliar to Europeans, such as southern Africa – thanks Erenow.com)

The first modern man was Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian sailor who took part in several expeditions to America in the years 1499–1504. Between 1502 and 1504, two texts describing these expeditions were published in Europe. They were attributed to Vespucci. These texts argued that the new lands discovered by Columbus were not islands off the East Asian coast, but rather an entire continent unknown to the Scriptures, classical geographers and contemporary Europeans. In 1507, convinced by these arguments, a respected mapmaker named Martin Waldseemüller published an updated world map, the first to show the place where Europe’s westward-sailing fleets had landed as a separate continent. Having drawn it, Waldseemüller had to give it a name. Erroneously believing that Amerigo Vespucci had been the person who discovered it, Waldseemüller named the continent in his honour – America. The Waldseemüller map became very popular and was copied by many other cartographers, spreading the name he had given the new land. 

There is poetic justice in the fact that a quarter of the world, and two of its seven continents, are named after a little-known Italian whose sole claim to fame is that he had the courage to say, ‘We don’t know.’

A fascinating story. How often do we admit ignorance?

Index on what you can’t easily compare

Here are a few things you can easily compare:

  • The status conferred by your role or company or degree
  • The number of products you shipped
  • Your car
  • The amount of press you’ve received
  • The size of your home
  • The number of likes you receive on your social media shares

Here are a few things you can’t easily compare:

  • The strength of your closest relationships
  • Your sense of self worth
  • The amount of undivided attention you’re able to give to the folks who matter to you
  • How much you have learnt about topics that matter to you
  • Your self awareness and thoughtfulness
  • The impact you’ve had – both in terms of breadth and depth
  • The amount of time you are able to dedicate to deep, uninterrupted work

We are wired to compare and compete. We compare and compete because we tell ourselves the story that winning in these things matter.

But, they don’t. The trophies we collect from these are fake and the joy they bring disappears in a few hours – like leprechaun gold.

In the long run, it is the things that we can’t easily compare that bring us meaning and happiness.

When in doubt, index on what you can’t easily compare.

Dollar per use and spending principles

There’s a few simple principles I’ve come to appreciate when it comes to spending money. The latest edition to that list is the idea of Dollar per use.

Here’s what my list roughly looks like –

  1. Frugal and proud. 🙂
  2. Spend on experiences (e.g. a wonderful vacation) versus things. Thus, money spent to treat friends and family is generally money well spent.
  3. Don’t overthink spending on learning or fitness. These are the most important investments you will make.
  4. For items that can be given away (such as clothes), make sure you give an item away for every item you buy.
  5. Consider dollar per use. If you are going to use a shoe every day, for example, it is worth investing in a good one. 

I’ve pushed frugality too far in the past and skimped on everyday items. But, no more. The dollar per use idea will hopefully set that right.

Biodiversity, periodic disturbances and our creativity

In the 1950s, Biologist Joseph Connell ventured from California to Australia to understand what causes the biodiversity in coral reefs and rainforests. In particular, he wanted to understand why some landscapes exhibited vast biodiversity, with hundreds of species living side by side, while other landscapes only a few miles away exhibited homogeneity, with a few species dominating.

It seemed as if nature’s creative capacities depended on some kind of periodic disturbance  –  like a tree fall or an occasional storm  – that temporarily upset the natural environment. But, the disturbance couldn’t be too small or too big. It had to be just the right size. ‘Intermediate disturbances are critical,’ said Connell to Charles Duhigg when he interviewed him for his book “Smarter, Faster, Better.”

Within biology, this has become known as the intermediate disturbance hypothesis, which holds that ‘local species diversity is maximized when ecological disturbance is neither too rare nor too frequent.’”

This has lots of interesting parallels. For example, during the ideation process at Disney/Pixar, they make sure they create small disturbances within the team (e.g. changing the team leader) when there’s a feeling that everyone is stuck. Similarly, brainstorming sessions work well when you change things up a bit – move to a different location, use a different format, etc.

There’s a wonderful life lesson in here as well – a little bit of disruption every once a while keeps us fresh and creative. So, if you’re not looking forward to an upcoming disruption of your usual weekly or weekend routine, just remember that it is likely better in the long run.

Jobs-to-be-done and Munchkin spoons – Thinking Product

My hypothesis is that great products have 3 characteristics –

1. Nail job-to-be-done: They are a great solution to a problem users care about
2. Delight to use: They are well designed
3. Sticky: Makes the customer/user want to come back

I thought I’d start by digging into the idea of nailing job-to-be-done. And, to do that, I decided to start with a physical product that I think does a great job of this.

This is what Munchkin Inc.’s (what a great name) spoons look like when all is normal.

At this stage, it is like every other spoon for infants in the market. It is light, easy to use and colorful.

Here’s what the spoon looks like when it touches hot food.

The spoon turns white and gradually becomes colorful again as it cools. It is designed to help parents avoid ever burning their kids’ tongue and has become very popular with first time parents.

Understanding jobs-to-be-done: The jobs-to-be-done idea is that customers don’t buy specific products or services. Instead, they hire various solutions at various times to get a wide variety of jobs done.  A job-to-be-done, thus, is about the higher purpose (or “the why”) that causes a customer to buy.

So, how do you test if you really understand jobs-to-be-done? There are 2 tests –
1. Do you understand why the customer buys this product?
2. Do you know what the customer fires to hire this product?

Both these questions are important. So, let’s dig into them.

1. Do you understand why the customer buys this product?
This is a classic example of a seemingly simple question that is hard to answer. One way to illustrate this is by asking – what are Netflix’s competitors?

The obvious answers are Amazon Prime, Hulu, and YouTube. But, the answer would be different from from a jobs-to-be-done point of view.

Why do people watch/hire Netflix? A hypothesis could be that they likely hire Netflix to escape from the day-to-day at the end of a day or to help them avoid boredom. And, if that’s the case, then Netflix’s competitors would actually be the following: television, books, listening to music, watching TV with the family, conversations with friends or family, sleep, cooking / putting together a meal kit, and exercise. And, this is us just getting started. Of course, some of this is more important than others. But, the list is a lot broader than you think.

2. Do you know what the customer fires to hire this product?
When you understand why customers hire you, it is easier to understand what people fire. Working with our hypothesis around Netflix, people often likely “fire” reading books, watching television with the family, exercising, among others.

This leads to all sorts of product insights for Netflix. For example,

  • Make sure you have interesting documentary content for people interested to learn (instead of books)
  • Make as many original TV shows as possible so people tune in to you just like they’d tune into television (television)
  • Allow for these TV shows to be binge watched (sleep)
  • Have an endless collection of great recommendations so people are always happy they hired you to avoid boredom (overall)
  • Allow other members of the family have separate accounts so you can all watch Netflix separately if need be and so you nail the right recommendations for the right person (replace family watching TV)

Back to Munckin spoons: Understanding JTBD helps us understand what Munckin Inc’s spoons do really well. They understand that parents hire almost anything to do with their infant to do 2 things – i) Do the job and ii) Ensure safety.

Most other infant spoons did half the job well. But, Munchkin Inc. understand that new parents would pay a premium for safety and nailed the use case. Every other spoon got fired.

Jobs-to-be-done is a process of discovery and it isn’t something you necessarily get right when you build your product the first time. This process of understanding it and nailing it is called “product-market fit.” And, it is a process every great product gets right.