Things are going well here in China. Also, I’ve discovered, entirely by accident, the incredible value of getting up at 3 in the morning. I wonder if there would be a way to adapt that practice once I’m back in the US…
You can see some of my updates and some pictures, if interested, through my Twitter posts at twitter.com/mattperman.
I’m going to be in China for the next week or so. I hope to be able to do some posts from over there, but if not here are some posts from the last nine months that you might find helpful:
- What this Blog is About, Part 1
- What this Blog is About, Part 2
- How to Get Your Email Inbox to Zero Every Day
- Multitasking at 10,000 Feet
- Natural Planning, Unnatural Planning, and Reactive Planning
- How to Get the Mail
- People Are Not Overhead
If I don’t get a chance to do any posts over there, I’ll talk to you again in a little over a week.
Fast Company has an interesting, short slideshow of the 13 most creative cities in the world. Some of the cities on here were surprising.
Facebook usernames are coming Friday night at 11:01 pm Central Time. This means that the url for your profile will be as simple as www.facebook.com/mattperman, rather than www.facebook.com/id=592952074?!#@4832
From the Facebook blog:
Starting at 12:01 a.m. EDT on Saturday, June 13, you’ll be able to choose a username on a first-come, first-serve basis for your profile and the Facebook Pages that you administer by visiting www.facebook.com/username/. You’ll also see a notice on your home page with instructions for obtaining your username at that time.
From the beginning of Facebook, people have used their real names to share and connect with the people they know. This authenticity helps to create a trusted environment because you know the identity of the people and things on Facebook. The one place, though, where your identity wasn’t reflected was in the Web address for your profile or the Facebook Pages you administer. The URL was just a randomly assigned number like “id=592952074.” That soon will change.
We’re planning to offer Facebook usernames to make it easier for people to find and connect with you. When your friends, family members or co-workers visit your profile or Pages on Facebook, they will be able to enter your username as part of the URL in their browser. This way people will have an easy-to-remember way to find you. We expect to offer even more ways to use your Facebook username in the future.
The rate of the earth’s curvature is about 8 inches per mile.
At least, that’s what the globe I have in my office here says. That’s interesting.
In his latest column, Thomas Sowell points out that learning from other countries does not simply mean imitating them, as many who call for America to be “more European” imply, but often means learning from their mistakes:
People who say that we should learn from other countries seem to have in mind that we should imitate those countries. But some of the most valuable lessons from other countries can be had from seeing the disasters their policies have produced– especially when our own intelligentsia are pushing ideas that have already been tried and failed elsewhere.
Here’s one example:
A British homeowner who held two burglars at gunpoint until the police arrived was arrested– even though the gun he used turned out to be just a realistic-looking toy gun. The British intelligentsia take guns much more seriously than they take burglary, even when it is only a toy gun that is used to “intimidate” a burglar, as they put it.
This is the first Piper message I ever listened to. It was 1996, and he had given the message just a week or two before. It’s called “Sustained by Sovereign Grace — Forever” and it is still my favorite (well, top 5). You can read it or listen to it at that link.
Seth Godin has good advice for the 80% of college graduates who sought jobs but have not obtained one yet.
The Wall Street Journal has a good editorial on Obama’s claim that his stimulus has “saved or created” 150,000 jobs so far, and that he will ramp up spending to create another 600,000 more this summer.
The problem is that it is impossible to measure the number of jobs “saved.” Economist Gregory Mankiw calls this an “unmeasurable metric.” Agencies like the Labor Department and Bureau of Labor Statistics measure the number of jobs lost or created, but none of them track the number of jobs “saved” because there is no way to know.
Which means that talking in terms of “jobs saved” creates a very convenient situation for Obama:
“You created a situation where you cannot be wrong,” said the Montana Democrat. “If the economy loses two million jobs over the next few years, you can say yes, but it would’ve lost 5.5 million jobs. If we create a million jobs, you can say, well, it would have lost 2.5 million jobs. You’ve given yourself complete leverage where you cannot be wrong, because you can take any scenario and make yourself look correct.”
Now, something’s wrong when the president invokes a formula that makes it impossible for him to be wrong and it goes largely unchallenged. It’s true that almost any government spending will create some jobs and save others. But as Milton Friedman once pointed out, that doesn’t tell you much: The government, after all, can create jobs by hiring people to dig holes and fill them in.
It will be available starting June 19. See an overview on the Apple site. Looks excellent! Key improvements include:
- 2 times faster
- Built in video camera (finally! — although I know you could take video before if you “unlocked” it)
- Voice control — play music or place a call by voice
- Spotlight search so you can search across the whole device (finally)
- Send photos and videos in your SMS
- Copy and paste (part of the software update, so it sounds like you have this even if you don’t upgrade the phone)
Marcus Buckingham has a good article on The Top Ten Things to Do if You Become Unemployed.
You’ve probably heard about Google Wave. If you haven’t (or even if you have), TechCrunch has a good summary of Google Wave that is worth taking a look at. Here’s the 40,000 foot view:
Everyone uses email and instant messaging on the web now, but imagine if you could tie those two forms of communication together and add a load of functionality on top of it. At its most fundamental form, that’s essentially what Wave is. Developed by brothers Lars and Jens Rasmussen and Stephanie Hannon out of Google’s Sydney, Australia offices, Wave was born out of the idea that email and instant messaging, as successful as they still are, were both created a very long time ago. We now have a much more robust web full of content and brimming with a desire to share stuff. Or as Lars Rasumussen put it, “Wave is what email would look like if it were invented today.”
Having seen a lengthy demonstration, as ridiculous as it may sound, I have to agree. Wave offers a very sleek and easy way to navigate and participate in communication on the web that makes both email and instant messaging look stale.
If I buy product “A” for $50 is that cheaper than buying Product “B” for $60? Well, that depends.
The concept of Total Cost of Ownership, usually abbreviated as TCO, helps us evaluate the true cost of the purchases we make for our companies, and for ourselves.
I would like to add another cost as well. I call it the “pain in the neck cost.” In other words, you need to look not only at the purchase price of the item and not only at the total cost over the life of the product, but also at the potential for problems and trouble and turmoil that the product will simply cost your sanity. This cost is intangible — you cannot necessarily assign dollars to it — but is just as real.
These days, when time is the new scarcity, the pain in the neck cost is more important than ever.
Good advice from Time Management from the Inside Out:
The worst thing to do is berate yourself for not getting everything done, for periodically procrastinating, and for slowing down from time to time. The time and energy you spend feeling guilty create a downward spiral of nonproductivity. Even the most productive people occasionally have off days. The thing that makes them good time managers is that they realize these things are a part of life, forgive themselves, make the necessary adjustments to their schedules, and move on.
Don’t kick yourself for your productivity failures. If you do, you might create a downward spiral that makes things worse. Besides, everyone has bad days.
From the Townhall blog:
Here’s what the President hopes nobody realizes: Raising taxes has consequences for everyone – and most of them are bad.
Yesterday, I wrote about the ugly unintended consequences for regular Americans of the liberal love affair with “taxing the rich.”
Today, Microsoft has offered us a lesson on what it means for regular Americans when liberals try to “tax corporations.”
Whether or not they know it, when the government raises taxes “just” on “corporations” or “the rich,” everyone ends up paying. Everyone.
Another reason people incorrectly estimate how long tasks take is that they overlook hidden time costs. Emily was a novelist whose goal was to write for three hours every morning. So she’d schedule three hours of writing time. That was logical enough; however, she consistently got only two hours of work done each day.
After paying attention to her habits, Emily realized it took her an hour to warm up. During this time, she read the newspaper, drank coffee, and gathered her thoughts. When she skipped this step, her writing was dreadful.
She had to accept that part of her process included warming up. For Emily to write productively for three hours, she needed to schedule four hours. To calculate how long it would take her to write a piece, she would have to allow for this transition time.
It is very interesting that this person spent one hour essentially doing other things in order to get “warmed up” for the writing she intended to do. It would be tempting to say, “that’s inefficient — she should just skip those things, and she’ll get more done in her day.” But, as she noted, if she skipped those “warm-up tasks,” her writing was horrible.
The lesson: Unproductive time is not necessarily unproductive. It may be an essential step in “tuning up” your mind for the high-level tasks it needs to do. If you cut it out, you may find that your productivity decreases rather than increases.
If you find this to be true in your case, embrace it. Don’t go overboard, but don’t try to change yourself. If you can get 4 hours of work done in 4 hours of straight work, that’s great. But if you “waste” the first hour, but then in the remaining 3 hours get the equivalent of 4 hours of tasks done, more power to you.
Tuesday was “leave the office early” day. Cali and Jody at the ROWE blog have a great post on the problems with that idea.
And here’s what’s great: the problem is not with the idea of leaving work early.
Good statement from the ROWE blog:
We shouldn’t be judging people for how they decide to approach their work. It’s that simple. As long as the work is getting done, and as long as people have the freedom to operate in the best way to get that work done, then there is no crazy. And nine-to-five is not a badge of honor, but just one of many options.
I’ll be posting more about the nature of a results-only-work-environemnt (ROWE) in the future.
In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell discusses what linguists call “mitigated speech.” Mitigated speech is when we speak in a deferential way in order to be polite or show deference to authority.
For example, “If you want your boss to do you a favor, you don’t say, ‘I’ll need this by Monday.’ You mitigate. You say, ‘Don’t bother if it’s too much trouble, but if you have a chance to look at this over the weekend, that would be wonderful.’”
In most situations, mitigation is a very good and polite thing. But there are some situations where it creates a problem. The cockpit of an airplane on a stormy night is one such instance.
Gladwell points out that there are six ways for a first officer to persuade a captain to change course. These relfect the six levels of mitigation in speech:
1. Command: “Turn thirty degrees right.” That’s the most direct and explicit way of making a point imaginable. It’s zero mitigation.
2. Crew Obligation Statement: “I think we need to deviate right about now.” Notice the use of “we” and the fact that hte request is now much less specific. It’s a little softer.
3. Crew Suggestion: “Let’s go around the weather.” Implicit in that statement is “we’re in this together.”
4. Query: “Which direction would you like to deviate?” That’s even softer than a crew suggestion, because the speaker is conceding that he’s not in charge.
5. Preference: “I think it would be wise to turn left or right.”
6. Hint: “That return at twenty-five miles looks mean.” This is the most mitigated statement of all. (Outliers, p 195)
These six levels of mitigation are helpful. Mitigation is a good way to show courtesy and respect to others. Teaching mitigation is even a key part of raising kids. For example, we teach our children not to say to us “Give me some orange juice.” They need to say, “Please may I have some orange juice?”
So it is good manners to use mitigation in our communication, and this seems to come naturally to most people.
But sometimes this can get tricky. There are times to use less mitigation than others. For example, I don’t like it when people give me hints. As Gladwell says so well, “a hint is the hardest kind of request to decode and the easiest to refuse.” A lot of times, if someone is giving a hint about a course of action to take, it is too easy to interpret them as simply making an observation. Not until after the fact do I realize, “Oh, they really mean that I should have turned left there.”
The worst example of all comes in situations where lives are at risk and clear, decisive actions need to be taken. Those are instances where mitigation creates problems.
It is mitigation, in fact, which “explains one of the great anomalies of plane crashes.” The anomaly is this: crashes are far more likely to happen when the captain — that is, the more experienced pilot — is in the flying seat.
The reason is mitigation. The first officer wants to show deference to the authority of the pilot. So if the pilot is making a mistake, he mitigates. If things have gone wrong, the captain is low on sleep, and other complexities abound, the captain can fail to pick this up and decode the fact that the first officer is actually saying that a critical action needs to be taken. Gladwell gives several instances of how this became the decisive issue in commercial airline crashes. As a result, it is ironically the case that “planes are safer when the least experienced peson is flying, because it means the second pilot isn’t going to be afraid to speak up” (p. 197).
Fortunately, in recent years “combating mitigation has become one of the great crusades in commercial aviation in the past fifteen years.” Crew members are taught how to communicate clearly and assertively and a standardized procedure to challenge the pilot if it appears that he or she has overlooked something critical.
The result? “Aviation experts will tell you that it is the success of this war on mitigation as much as anything else that accounts for the extraordinary decline in airlie accidents in recent years.”
The lesson? The way we communicate matters. Be respectful and be polite. That is crucial to preserving the human element of our interactions. But know when times call for increased directness, and how to be tactful in spite of having to use less mitigation. And, above all, be clear.
Good column by David Brooks in the NY Times on why the Obama restructuring plan for GM won’t work. Chief among them: the problem is in the company culture.
G.M.’s core problem is its corporate and workplace culture — the unquantifiable but essential attitudes, mind-sets and relationship patterns that are passed down, year after year.
Over the last five decades, this company has progressively lost touch with car buyers, especially the educated car buyers who flock to European and Japanese brands. Over five decades, this company has tolerated labor practices that seem insane to outsiders. Over these decades, it has tolerated bureaucratic structures that repel top talent. It has evaded the relentless quality focus that has helped companies like Toyota prosper.
As a result, G.M. has steadily lost U.S. market share, from 54 to 19 percent. Consumer Reports now recommends 70 percent of Ford’s vehicles, but only 19 percent of G.M.’s.
The problems have not gone unrecognized and heroic measures have been undertaken, but technocratic reforms from within have not changed the culture. Technocratic reforms from Washington won’t either. For the elemental facts about the Obama restructuring plan are these: Bureaucratically, the plan is smart. Financially, it is tough-minded. But when it comes to the corporate culture that is at the core of G.M.’s woes, the Obama approach is strangely oblivious. The Obama plan won’t revolutionize G.M.’s corporate culture. It could make things worse.
Read on to see why Obama’s plan will likely make things worse.
And I’ll go ahead and add another thing to my list of things that should not exist.
Yesterday we learned from Malcolm Gladwell about why plane crashes happen. Surprisingly, “plane crashes are much more likely to be the result of an accumulation of minor difficulties and seemingly trivial malfunctions [as opposed to major mechanical failures].”
Interestingly, the same factors are at play in creating most major disasters and industrial accidents, including nuclear meltdowns.
The near-meltdown at Three Mile Island is a case in point. A number of minor errors that would have each been harmless in themselves combined to create a near catastrophe. In fact, even four of these errors happening together would have amounted to nothing. But with each error, there was some freakish, incredibly unlikely related error at just the wrong spot to render the previous error significant. After a sequence of five of these, the plant was almost at a meltdown.
The story is quite incredible. Here it is, from Gladwell’s book Outliers (p. 183):
One of the most famous accidents in history, for example, was the near meltdown at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island nuclear station in 1979. Three Mile Island so traumatized the American public that it sent the US nuclear power industry into a tailspin from which it has never fully recovered. But what actually happened at that nuclear reactor began as something far from dramatic.
As the sociologist Charles Perrow shows in his classic Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies, there was a relatively routine blockage in what is called the plant’s “polisher”–a kind of giant water filter. The blockage caused moisture to leak into the plant’s air system, inadvertently tripping two valves and shutting down the flow of cold water into the plant’s steam generator.
Like all nuclear reactors, Three Mile Island had a backup cooling system for precisely this situation. But on that particular day, for reasons that no one really understands, the valves for the backup system weren’t open. Someone had closed them, and an indicator in the control room showing they were closed was blocked by a repair tag hanging from a switch above it.
That left the reactor depending on another backup system, a special sort of relief valve. But, as luck would have it, the relief valve wasn’t working properly that day either. It stuck open when it was supposed to close, and, to make matters even worse, a gauge in the control room that should have told the operators that the relief valve wasn’t working was itself not working properly. By the time Three Mile Island’s engineers realized what was happening, the reactor had come dangerously close to a meltdown.
Here’s the point:
No single big thing went wrong at Three Mile Island. Rather, five completely unrelated events occurred in sequence, each of which, had it happened in isolation, would have caused no more than a hiccup in the plant’s ordinary operation.
That is simply fascinating in itself. But let me be anti-climactic here by drawing out a lesson for our productivity.
Here’s the lesson: If you keep your routine systems humming along well (getting your email to zero every day, processing your inbox daily, etc.), who knows what far greater complications you may be saving yourself from?
By keeping the basics going along well, you may be heading off an accumulation of small complexities in your life which in themselves may not be a big deal, but which may just have ended up combining with a few other insignificant complexities to create a perfect storm. Perhaps not a nuclear meltdown, but perhaps a very, very bad day.
Patrick Lencioni has a superb article on why, in spite of valuing diversity, most companies fail to truly tap into the competitive advantage it can offer.
It doesn’t appear to be online yet, so here it is in full:
Seth Godin had a good post the other day on the dilemma faced by any organization that wants to grow the base that it serves:
If you want to grow the size of your customer base, you need to confront the buffet dilemma.
Any decent buffet has foods that please 85% of the population. Meats, cheeses, potatoes… the typical fare.
Once your business hits a natural plateau, it’s tempting to invest in getting more people to come. And what most buffets do is double down. Now, they have bacon, plus they have beans with bacon and turkey-wrapped bacon. Now, instead of one chocolate cake, they have three.
This is essentially useless. You haven’t done anything to grow your audience. The base might be a little more pleased, but not enough to bring in any new business. And the disenfranchised (the vegans, the weight watchers, the healthy eaters, the kosher crowd) remain unmoved and uninterested. And one person like this out of a party of six is enough to keep all six away.
What does work? Going much deeper or a bit wider:
Deeper would mean a bacon-focused buffet, a dozen bacon dishes, including chocolate-covered bacon. Deeper would mean a chocolate-obsessed dessert bar, ten cakes, fondue, everything.
Deeper gets you people willing to drive across town to visit you. It’s remarkable. It’s not like every other buffet but a little bit bigger. It’s insanely over the top. People will bully their friends in order to get them to come.
The other choice is wider. Instead of adding a handful of dishes that mildly please the people you already have, why not add brown rice and tofu and vegetarian chili? Now you’ve opened the doors to that last 15%.
Malcolm Gladwell has a highly fascinating discussion of plane crashes in his book Outliers.
It is not what you would expect! The reasons behind most plane crashes provide an excellent (and sobering) lesson in the role of communication and teamwork, and the accumulated significance of independently irrelevant, small things. Plus, it’s just plain interesting if you fly a lot (and, like me, every time you do, you think about crashing — even though you know that only 1 in 4 million commercial airliners are lost to an accident).
From Gladwell’s Outliers (pp. 183-185):
Plane crashes rarely happen in real life the same way they happen in the movies. Some engine part does not explode in a fiery bang. The rudder doesn’t suddenly snap under the force of takeoff. The captain doesn’t gasp as he’s thrown back against his seat.
The typical commercial jetliner — at this point in its stage of development — is about as dependable as a toaster. Plane crashes are much more likely to be the result of an accumulation of minor difficulties and seemingly trivial malfunctions [emphasis mine].
In a typical crash, for example, the weather is poor — not terrible, necessarily, but bad enough that the pilot feels a little bit more stressed than usual. In an overwhelming number of crashes, the plane is behind schedule, so the pilots are hurrying. In 52 percent of crashes, the pilot at the time of the accident has been awake for twelve hours or more, meaning that he is tired and not thinking sharply. And 44 percent of the time, the two pilots have never flown together before, so they’re not comfortable with each other.
Then the errors start — and it’s not just one error. The typical accident involves seven consecutive human errors. One of the pilots does something wrong that by itself is not a problem. Then one of them makes another error on top of that, which combined with the first error still does not amount to catastrophe. But then they make a third error on top of that, and then another and another and another and another , and it is the combination of all those errors that leads to disaster.
These seven errors, furthermore, are rarely problems of knowledge or flying skill. It’s not that the pilot has to negotiate some critical technical maneuver and fails. The kinds of errors that cause plane crashes are invariably errors of teamwork and communication [emphasis added]. One pilot knows something important and somehow doesn’t tell the other pilot. One pilot does something wrong, and the other pilot doesn’t catch the error. A tricky situation needs to be resolved through a complex series of steps — and somehow the pilots fail to coordinate and miss one of them.
“The whole flight-deck design is intended to be operated by two people, and that operation works best when you have one person checking the other, or both people willing to participate,” says Earl Weener, who was for many years chief engineer for safety at Boeing. “Airplanes are very unforgiving if you don’t do things right. And for a long time it’s been clear that if you have two people operating the airplane cooperatively, you will have a safer operation than if you have a single pilot flying the plane and another person who is simply there to take over if the pilot is incapacitated.”
Gladwell goes on to analyze several specific crashes and draw out the significance for communication patterns, team coordination and, more importantly to his point, the role of culturally absorbed mindsets in how we go about those things. As with the whole book, it is a very, very enjoyable and fruitful read.
I received a mailing from a fundraising consulting company today advertising a new “cutting edge technology” that they can offer to their non–profit clients: a font that looks like real handwriting but in fact is not. In other words, fake real handwriting.
This is appalling. Why would a non-profit want to use this service? Plain and simple, the thinking behind this seems to be: “We can make your donors think that they are reading real handwriting so that they will feel that the message is more personal. Then, they might give more.”
If you could read the fake-real handwriting in the image above, you’d see this perspective come out as well. But you don’t have to read that to see it. What can the value be in fake-genuine handwriting (they are calling it “genuinely penned handwriting”) if the person knows that it was created by a machine?
If you know that a machine created it, then it no longer seems personal. So the purpose of this “genuinely penned” stuff seems to depend upon the person thinking it is real. But if you think that it is real, then your assessment of the “personal nature” of the writing is not based on reality. In which case, in a very real sense, you’ve been tricked.
Why do certain direct marketing companies — and, in turn, the non-profits who use and follow their consulting services — reduce themselves to such tactics?
This company is being added to my list of things that should not exist.