MVPs and the cringe

There’s a great quote that says something to the tune of – “If you don’t cringe when you see the first version of your product (or your minimum viable product / MVP), you shipped too late.”

While this quote talks about start-up products, I would generalize and expand it to a much larger group. For example, I’d say the same about behavior, habits and philosophy.

Just yesterday, I had an MVP reflection moment that made me cringe. I stay in touch with people I’ve gotten to know and, in some cases, just met via the 200 words project. For a lot of people, the weekly email digest idea works really well. It has worked wonderfully for me as it forces me to synthesize lessons from books/articles I read. Also, there is something wonderful about a serendipitous email exchange with someone I’d lost touch with.

When I just started this process 7 years ago, I used to be generally add most folk I’d met on the list – instead of a goodbye, it’d be in the spirit of staying in touch. While this was occasionally nice when there was a real connection, there were cases when it really was overkill. I cringe every time I think of some of those additions to this least. Gradually, I became much more conservative in adding people to the list. However, for the longest time, I still largely had people opt out. Such a bad idea. Things finally came to a head 2 years back when I signed up a group of folk all together. I just felt horrible doing it and I decided I would shift to 100% opt in.

Every time I think of these decisions/moments, they make me cringe. But, I also realize that I wouldn’t have given these things any thought if I hadn’t gotten started in the first place. We owe it to ourselves to give ourselves the permission to learn and get better.

And, that can only happen if we’re willing to ship a product that is consistently work-in-progress. As novel as that might sound, it really isn’t. After all, we “ship” the current version of ourselves every day… and, if that isn’t an example of the quintessential work-in-progress product, I don’t know what is.

Cringe, MVPs, products(Talking about cringe worthy MVPs, I the first version of Amazon’s website. So glad Jeff and team just shipped and got better, relentlessly.)

Interviewing Dan Ariely

I had the privilege of interviewing the wonderful Dan Ariely in person last Wednesday. I had interviewed Dan three years ago over Skype and shared it here and the erstwhile “Real Leaders Project.” On an inspired day in January, I’d reached out to Dan if he’d be up for another Skype interview. It turned out he had planned a trip to Chicago in May and was planning to visit Kellogg. Voilà! We locked 2pm-3pm on Wednesday, May 25th.

Dan shared a few very personal anecdotes in the interview and requested us to not share the video in public. So, while I don’t have the video, I have my notes from the talk –

On the reproducibility crisis which is threatening to question the validity of many social science findings. As consumers of research, keep healthy skepticism. However, also dig deeper to understand what principles underlie the results being presented and whether they can be replicated in different environments.

For example, he conducted a study in a slum in Kenya testing various techniques to help people save. This included a variety of reminders, incentives and the like. The winner was a large fake gold coin which the participants placed in their hut and added a scratch mark every week they met their savings target. This large coin was a daily reminder to save and the principle here was to have frequent reminders around them to save. It worked great. But, how much of this would be replicable in a city? And, how many items in our home remind us to save?

Life is complex. So, when we go into a new environment, we need to understand the context and figure out which principles would work in that environment.

On how to think about the vast amount of social science research. One of the mistakes we make is hyperbolic discounting – over weighting the present. As we create more technology, we seem to find more ways to kill ourselves. Smoking, texting and driving, etc. The big question is how can we help people eat better, exercise more, sleep right, etc. We haven’t made progress on these. Instead, we’ve made better donuts and made Facebook more addictive.

When we seek to understand human behavior, a process that helps is to analyze people’s micro decisions in a day to look for patterns instead of trying to understand overall goals. Everyone wants to be healthier. But, what are the tiny decisions they make in a day that goes against that goal?

On applications of his work.  Particularly exciting when government does things like – making people sign at the start of the tax form versus the end (done in South America).

There are four factors that waste human capacity – health, time, money and hate. If we can do things to improve these four, it’ll be huge progress.

On political climate in the world. I love the definition of a just society by John Rawls – “If you knew everything about it, you’d be willing to join in a random place.” It is a beautiful definition.

In an experiment on ideal distribution of wealth, we found that people all around the world want a reasonably even health distribution. They just don’t know that the bottom 40% of people in the United States only have 0.3% of the wealth.

Much of the objective in politics is to get people to not think. So, we have slogans and ideology instead of thinking about where we are and what we want to be. What could we do to make sure people think once every 4 years? It is one area where we haven’t improved decision making at all.

On biases that get in the way of us being good leaders. A behavior that is hard to get over is to develop the courage to express your true opinion in a world that values political correctness. How can we as leaders encourage people who will disagree with us?
The academic process is pretty solid here – to get tenure, you need people from other universities to write letters. So, you can have very open discussions. While it is not possible to replicate this in corporates, this is something we need to be very mindful of.

Embracing failure. Experiments teach us humility. Understanding how often you are wrong is incredibly helpful. Doubting our intuition, keeping an open mind and experimenting is critical. It is shocking how many companies make decisions based on intuition. Intuit encourages “magnificent failure” with a prize of $1M every year and provides the creator 6 months off to test the ideas. Failing in a magnificent way means you tried, failed and learnt.

On ethics. I had an offer to speak to the management of a tobacco company for a large fee. So, I called the American Heart Association and asked – should I not go or should I donate the fees to you? They asked me to go. But, I decided not to because I don’t think the person I spoke to grasped the externalities of that decisions. Ethics are expensive. I think a lot about my own conflicts of interest. There is no easy answer.

On decisions. I think of 3 categories of decisions. Little decisions (e.g. buying a coffee or donut) – these I don’t pay attention to. Big decisions are those which we can do better at with a bit of effort. Then, there are habits – this, I do think about. If I set up a few good habits, then there can be huge impact in my life.

On heroes. Joep Lange, who was killed in the Malaysian Airlines flight that was shot down, single handedly worked to reduce AIDS in Africa. This required a rebellious nature, true dedication and single mindedness.

On how research has affected him as a parent. The environment is changing – not necessarily with your long term benefit in mind. Acting well is going to get harder with more interruptions from smartphones and other devices. So, we need to be aware of this.

As far as money goes, we give kids allowances and have them split into 3 buckets – for them, for people they know and for people they don’t know. Researcher Mike Norton has shown that people who aren’t happy with money are those who haven’t figured out how to give. In an experiment, people were given Starbucks cards and asked to use it on themselves or for other people. The people who bought coffee for others were much happier.

On one piece of advice. Take more chances. We are privileged to live long. Think of life as an opportunity for continuous learning. Education is never over. Keep on thinking of life as what we are going to learn and get better.

On an idea that inspires you that you’d like to share with us. A problem I am thinking about – how can we make side effects in medicine feel pleasurable? Cyclists enjoy the pain from cycling. If they don’t feel the pain, they don’t feel like they have done their job. We call this benign masochism. 🙂 Can we frame side effects as less negative? Could we make patients feel good about them? Could we increase adherence?

Dan Ariely, Kellogg

Failure and the social sciences – The 200 words project

(concluding the “why science is hard” series – Parts I, II)

Recently, a few famous psychology findings were called into question by what some have called the reproducibility crisis. The reproducibility idea seems like common sense – take a study and do it again. If you get the same result, that’s evidence that the findings are true, and if the result doesn’t turn up again, they’re false.

Yet in practice, it’s nowhere near this simple. 3 reasons for this are –
1. Regression to the mean. Initial studies likely had a known bias toward overestimating the magnitude of an effect. So, it is natural that future studies will show a much lower effect.
2. Different design and analysis approaches. While researcher incentives can lead to certain questionable research practices, there is wide variance on design and analysis approaches even among the best researchers.
3. Hard to recreate the exact conditions. Finally, and this is especially true for “social sciences,” the human behavior and motives of the lab subjects is nearly impossible to replicate

So, how should we think of reproducibility? As with the soccer card study in part I, treat an individual study as a data point, encourage more studies and, taken together, we’re likely to get closer to the truth.

social sciences

Science isn’t broken. It’s just a hell of a lot harder than we give it credit for. – Christie Aschwanden, Lead Sciene Writer @ the excellent FiveThirtyEight

Source and thanks to: The FiveThirtyEight Blog – Failure is Moving Science Forward


It is Game of Thrones season right now and is the time when I reflect on what it is that makes George R R Martin’s work so fascinating.

The lazy answer would be the sex and violence on display. Sure, HBO has done a good job using all that to good effect. But, while HBO’s show producers have done a fantastic job with the casting and cinematography, GRRM’s work is a great work of fiction for 3 reasons – morally grey characters instead of a traditional bad vs. good story, point-of-view storytelling and, thus, the lack of an omniscient narrator, and the complete lack of adherence to the normal hero’s journey.

To expand on that last idea, GRRM seems to be a big fan of a bittersweet story arc. He’s repeatedly stuck to that idea when talking about the end of the books.

People ask me how Game of Thrones is gonna end, and I’m not gonna tell them … but I always say to expect something bittersweet in the end,” he said. “You can’t just fulfill a quest and then pretend life is perfect.”

I think this choice points to something very powerful about what draws many of us to the story. We know how most normal movies end – the bad guy loses and the good guy wins. But, how often are the narratives that unfold in our real lives similar to that?

There is a case to be made that most real world story arcs are bittersweet and that the reason there is a lot of unhappiness in the world is because we expect the “end” to be perfect. But, of course, there is no perfect.

Maybe we’d all be a bit happier if we embraced bittersweet just a little bit more…

Obsessive people doing their thing

A good friend once said that his passion was working with obsessive people.

It is a line that has stuck with me. I absolutely love watching obsessive people doing their thing. Here’s why – the easy problems can be solved with a little bit of effort. But, the gnarly, hard problems require you to be consumed by them. This is along the lines of Albert Einstein saying that he wasn’t the smartest person alive, but that he just stayed with problems longer.

Here are a couple of examples of obsessiveness that I observed last month –

A teammate created a transition folder for an initiative we’d completed with every marketing email numbered chronologically. This folder, then, had one accompanying slide which explained the overall thought process and strategy. One look at both and you have everything you need to do it again, better.

For a workshop we led, we made sure we had asked the attendees for their favorite sweet and salty snacks. Then, a group within the team made sure we had 50 welcome packages with a sweet or salty snack matched to each attendee.
Another created a workbook on leadership where none existed and thoughtfully pieced together some of the best resources available to do so. She then personalized these workbooks with each attendees name to go with the welcome package and had every member of the team sign it.

Work examples aside, we had a friend decide to organize a night out at a a cabin after a hike. Every detail was worked out for us. And, I really mean every detail. All we did was show up and feel incredibly cared for.

These are just a selection of examples from the last 4-5 weeks. I have so many more.

The one true sign of leadership is deep care. And, I think deep care is best demonstrated by small things done with extraordinary love. And, I’ve found it hard to pour extraordinary love to those small things without having a certain amount of obsessiveness.

I don’t think I can ever say this enough – I am really grateful for the obsessive people in my life. I just love hanging out with them, learning from them and watching them do their thing.

The annoying commentator

There’s something very nice about listening to live sports with commentary. Despite the fact that all commentary isn’t good commentary, very few of us listen to live sports without the sound. Maybe the chatter adds a social event to watching sports? Or, maybe we just want to learn more about what’s happening.

While it is fantastic to listen to a commentator who knows what he/she’s doing, there is one kind of commentator that tends to exasperate me – the person who takes it upon himself to pick on the best teams/players. I am sure there is a market for contrarian advice. And, yes, these teams/players make mistakes. But, the annoying commentator takes it upon himself to question their thought process and judgment, repeatedly.

This is when I wonder – “If you’ve got this figured out, why weren’t you one of the world’s best players yourself?” (They generally weren’t)

Sports aside, we’ve got more commentary in our lives today than ever before. Do something and it is likely you have many willing to give you their opinion via news articles, blog posts, social media and the like. Sure, there’s a piece of all of this that is good feedback. But, it is worth remembering that it is very easy to sit by the sideline and give your opinion. I can’t tell you the number of time I’ve watched soccer and thought to myself – “Jeez, why didn’t he make that easy pass?” But, from my own experience playing, I realize that the simple stuff is so hard to do in a regular game.

That’s the beauty of actually putting yourself out there and shipping stuff. You become more tolerant of things done wrong as you’ve probably made those mistakes yourself. You begin to appreciate simple things done well. And, most importantly, you learn to respect folk who bring their A-game consistently.

So, don’t sit on the side and be the annoying commentator. Either go in and fix it or learn to shut up and let them do their thing.

And, if you are a commentator by profession, consider developing a deep understanding of what it takes to excel in the field you are covering. Probably most importantly, keep it as objective and possible.. and classy. We don’t need more commentary. We need better.

(A salute to Martin Tyler – who does a fantastic job as a commentator for the English Premier League and European Champion’s League)

Tweaking the environment

One of the more powerful things you can do as a leader is to pick an environment that encourages people to behave in a certain way. This is part of the sort of intention that is required to shape culture. For example, a meeting room with lots of opportunity to write will likely have more brainstorming. A meeting room with a lot of light will likely encourage more divergent thought. Ideally, you’d pick meeting places that are consistent with the culture you want to build.

I was reminded of how powerful tweaks to your environment can be just a few days ago. The monitor I use to type these posts, for example, was supported by 3 books as its height isn’t adjustable. Even so, it was slightly shorter than the right ergonomic height.

So, every once in a while, I would slouch as I was working away on the laptop. A few days back, my wife took a photo of me eating breakfast while slouching and I found myself immediately attempting to correct my posture. But, as the immediate reaction is just one of instinct, I thought about the problem for a bit.

It was soon apparent that the fix was a simple – just add a fourth book.


And, voilà, I slouch so much lesser now. The height of the screen makes me sit up straight – the environment shapes my behavior.

It is always interesting to look at our behavior (and, in some cases, those of others) and ask ourselves – what could we change about the environment to encourage different/better behavior?