Monday, December 30, 2013

Looking for a New Year's Resolution? Start a journaling habit

Starting a new habit is as traditional part of a New Year's celebration as eating black-eyed peas. This year, consider starting a journal. It's a great way to mark accomplishments and things you're grateful for (or things you would rather avoid in the future). I have been keeping an online journal for the past two years and it's been very helpful for finding mistake patterns, as well as logging accomplishments - which is very helpful as you enter the annual review process.
Use paper, a word doc, or my favorite - the 3Minute Journal app (disclaimer: I have been involved in building the app). Plan to set aside a couple of minutes at the end of each weekday (or every day) to write down the most significant event that happened and answer a few questions about it. Within a month or so, you'll have a rich repository of data about yourself that you can use to track your inner work life.
Ask a friend to try it with you!

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Breaking Bad creator describes rejections from networks

From Vince Gilligan, creator of Breaking Bad, on the Rich Eisen podcast, discussing the fact that several networks passed on the show before AMC picked it up.

Then your studio and you have got to find a distributor or a broadcaster. You have to find your AMC. And that was a bit of a process. Getting to AMC involved several "no thank yous" along the way. Which is not atypical. Every movie, every TV show, every book you ever loved, probably all the ones you hated too, even were said "no" to by a half dozen people or more. But all it takes is the one "yes."

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Starting a business? Dislliking your customers is a crucial mistake

This story is from Steve Blank's post "How Do You Want to Spend the Next 4 Years Of Your Life?," part of his ongoing series of advice to founders:

[As a startup founder,] now that you’ve gotten to know your potential channel and customers, regardless of how much money you’re going to make, will you enjoy working with these customers for the next 3 or 4 years?

One of the largest mistakes in my career was getting this wrong. I used to be in startups where I was dealing with engineers designing our microprocessors or selling supercomputers to research scientists solving really interesting technical problems. But in my next to last company, I got into the video game business.

My customers were 14-year old boys. (see 1:30 in the video) I hated them. It was a lifelong lesson that taught me to never start a business where you hate your customers. It never goes well. You don’t want to talk to them. You don’t want to do Customer Development with them. You just want them to go away. And in my case they did – they didn’t buy anything.

So you and your team need to feel comfortable being in this business with these customers.

The video Steve refers to is below:

Monday, December 16, 2013

The mistake of the glowing hockey puck

In a recent interview, Hank Adams, the CEO of Sportvision, the company behind the yellow first-down line superimposed onto the field during TV broadcasts, discussed the company's first augmented-reality project, the glowing hockey puck. The puck's blue aura was intended to help viewers keep track of the fast-moving object as it slid along the ice. But like many innovations, it was greeted with disdain by the core fan base which was happy with things as they were. Adams spoke to NPR's Audie Cornish about it:

Adams: It glowed, and we actually embedded electronics in the puck. It was such a phenomenon.... It captured popular attention. Some people loved it, some people hated it....

Cornish: Over time, people looked at it unfavorably. By the end of the two year [trial period]...they quit using the puck, and a lot of hockey purists still complain about it.

Adams: They do... for the hardcore hockey fan, they felt that it was over the top. It's something that, if we ever did it again, we'd be a lot more subtle about it, probably do it during replay. We did it in those cases live, during a live broadcast. We'd be a little smarter about how we went about it.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Negative results are decreasing in scholarly papers

One of the side effects of our fear of mistakes is the discrediting of negative findings. On the few occasions when I played craps in a casino, I noted how poorly the other players at the table reacted when I bet the "don't pass" line - essentially, betting on the dice roller to fail - when the outcome of a roll was perfectly random and the expected payout was no different whether you played pass or don't pass.

The craps example demonstrates how dysfunctional trying to deny the negative is. As Edison said, "[Negative results are] just as valuable to me as positive results. I can never find the thing that does the job best until I find the ones that don't."

Given the above, reading the abstract of this 2012 paper was both unsurprising and somewhat discouraging. Entitled "Negative results are disappearing from most disciplines and countries," by Daniele Fanelli and published in the March 2012 issue of Scientometrics, the paper indicates a significant increase of scholarly papers reporting that their study results supported the stated hypothesis, rather than disproving it:

This study analysed over 4,600 papers published in all disciplines between 1990 and 2007, measuring the frequency of papers that, having declared to have “tested” a hypothesis, reported a positive support for it. The overall frequency of positive supports has grown by over 22% between 1990 and 2007....

Fanelli notes some fascinating cultural differences in reporting negative findings, and included these wise words of warning:

A system that disfavours negative results not only distorts the scientific literature directly, but might also discourage high-risk projects and pressure scientists to fabricate and falsify their data.

Yes indeed.

[Hat tip @Mangan150]

See some prior posts on negative data in research: "Free the Dark Data in Failed Scientific Experiments," "Web site offers scientists access to lessons from failed experiments."

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Football quarterback relies on a "database" of failed decisions

From Sports Illustrated's Monday Morning Quarterback column. Nick Foles of the Philadelphia Eagles is having a great season, including a remarkable run with no interceptions - but he almost did throw one:

On Sunday, trying to get some insurance for a 24-21 lead with four minutes left, Foles had a 2nd-and-7 at his 34-yard line, and he faced a heavy rush. Instead of throwing it away, Foles floated one down the middle of the field into coverage. Cornerback Patrick Peterson picked it off—and there went the Foles streak. But a late flag came flying, and Tyrann Mathieu was called for holding wideout Jason Avant.

[Translation of above for people who don't follow American football - the quarterback dropped a few steps behind the line of scrimmage and looked to pass. As guys from the other team came close to tackling him for a loss of yardage, he threw the ball inadvisedly down the middle of the field, where there were lots of opposing defenders. One of them caught the ball for an interception. However, the referee called a penalty on another player for holding, and the play was negated and the interception didn't count.]

“Man, horrible throw, horrible decision,” Foles said from Philadelphia an hour after the game. “When I saw the flag and heard the call, I said, ‘Thank you God.’ I learned my lesson there. But that’s what I try to do: I build a database with decisions like that, and I learn from them. If I get that same look [defensive formation] the next time, I’ll make a different throw, or I’ll throw it away.”

Do you have a database for your decisions that don't work out, and what you'll do differently the next time you're faced with the same situation?

Monday, December 9, 2013

Failure guru Amy Edmondson deconstructs the fiasco

Amid all the breathless news coverage of the failed rollout of the Obamacare website, we now have some genuine analysis, courtesy of one of my heroes, Amy Edmondson of Harvard Business School ("The Mistakes Behind Are Probably Lurking In Your Company, Too"). She may be more qualified than anyone to weigh in, given her deep research experience in learning from mistakes and failure in very complex situations (including healthcare). A couple of potent excerpts: is a good example of the importance of learning small and fast, rather than rolling out a risky new product or service launch all at once. Cycling out in phases includes the expectation of early failures – and demands all hands on deck to learn from them along the way. A roll-out, in contrast, implies that something is all set, ready to go — like a carpet. All it needs is a bit of momentum to propel it forward. For complex initiatives, of course, this is simply not the case. Getting people motivated enough to change is not the real challenge; it’s getting them engaged enough to learn — to become part of a discovery process.


Managers must make it clear that they understand that excellent performance does not mean not making mistakes — it means learning quickly from mistakes and sharing the lessons widely.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Story: don't pretend to be something you're not

This brief story was related by Dolf van den Brink, chief executive of Heineken USA, and was published in Adam Bryant's Corner Office column in the New York Times:

One big mistake I made came from listening to a lot of the advice I heard before I took the job. People told me: “Dolf, you need to be strong. You need to command respect because this is a tough environment.” I was 32, and I probably looked 28, so I tried to behave and look older than I was. After three months I was losing weight, we weren’t getting any traction, and I was drained. My wife said to me: “Just be yourself. Stop pretending.” I started wearing casual clothes and just started being myself.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Story: Cultural ignorance leads to "Fruitgate"

Here's a great story about a cultural faux pas from Deb Weidenhammer as presented in the New York Times You're The Boss blog. Weidenhammer is CEO of Auction Systems & Appraisers.

The day before “Fruitgate,” as we now term it in my China office, I hosted a luncheon at a famous restaurant in Shanghai. I invited members of my professional association, including government officials and several high-ranking private sector professionals.

Over a very pleasant lunch, we talked about the differences between business practices in America and China. While there were no breakthroughs, it was a fun few hours of cross-cultural sharing. I left the event feeling secure that I hadn’t made any major mistakes in my hostessing.

When I arrived at the office the following day to prepare for my return to the United States, the Chinese office manager told me that a call had come in from the association’s chairman with the message that I was invited to go fruit picking the next day with several of the other members.

Thinking the invitation a courtesy, I asked the office manager to let the chairman know I would be unable to make the event, as I was returning to America. The message was relayed, and I boarded my flight believing the invitation was evidence of the good job I had done at lunch.

When I returned to the Shanghai office a few weeks after the incident, I learned from my most senior Chinese manager that I had made a grave mistake — perhaps my biggest to date in China. In my Western view, I had a scheduling conflict. I had appointments in the United States and a precious seat on a flight home. An American business executive would have understood.

But in the view of my Chinese contacts — as it has been explained to me several times since — I came off as arrogant, believing myself too important to change my schedule to attend the event. There was clearly no ill will on my part, but perception is reality. I was dead wrong in declining the request....

The damage was done, and I am still paying the price. Since Fruitgate, I have heard tell of my reputation for being conceited and self-important from more than two dozen people who had no firsthand knowledge of the situation. Despite my ongoing efforts to patch things up, I heard yet again about my legendary arrogance just a few weeks ago.

What makes it worse is that I actually would have enjoyed the experience of picking fruit in China’s countryside. My inattention to my guanxi [network] in that single moment will take years to repair.

So here’s my advice: whatever else you do in China, always say yes to fruit picking.

There are several more cultural faux pas stories on the site, including this one from me and a comic story from Josh Neufeld.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Best Books of the Year 2013

Here's my yearly "best of" list. It's been a great year for mistake books, as you can tell by the Bookshelf feature we've done the second half of the year. I'd like to thank everyone who suggested books and ask you to please keep the suggestions coming. As always, these are books I read this year - some were published before 2013.

1.  Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, Nassim Nicholas Taleb. At times long-winded, petty and vindictive, it has also got more vital, energizing ideas in one chapter than most great books contain in their entirety. Read this book, and you will appreciate all the more why economists cannot be trusted with the economy, the many ways in which philosophy trumps science, and the wide applicability of the "turkey problem." (Yes, think Thanksgiving.)

2. The End of Competitive Advantage: How to Keep Your Strategy Moving as Fast as Your Business, Rita Gunther McGrath. A great synthesis of trends that have been emerging for the past two decades, McGrath demonstrates how many of the core assumptions of Michael Porter-style strategic thinking (industry-based competition, the idea of long-term competitiveness, etc.) are now outmoded, and competitiveness now means the ability to nimbly discover, exploit, and move on from briefer periods of advantage.

3. The Logic Of Failure: Recognizing And Avoiding Error In Complex Situations by Dietrich Dörner. Written and published in the 1990s, this is a terrific and compassionate look at how people are befuddled by complex problems - those with many contributing factors, side effects, and time lags between cause and effect - and how we can learn to manage these problems better. For example, think before you act, make small changes, and carefully track results.

4.  Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking, Daniel C. Dennett. A huge book with all sorts of tools to help people find their way around intellectual problems. My favorite tool is the first: Making Mistakes.

5. What I Learned Losing a Million Dollars (Columbia Business School Publishing) Jim Paul and Brendan Moynihan. Very few types of work are as rich a source for mistake stories as investing. In this human, funny and compassionate work, Paul recalls his rise in prominence as a commodities investor, and then his rapid fall. In the second half of the book, he dissects his decisions and discusses the psychological factors that helped them go so wrong. [This was one of the many interesting books recommended by Taleb in Antifragile.]

And may I present one more item for your holiday shopping consideration? Contact me at mistakebank (at) caddellinsightgroup (dot) com for bulk pricing on the paper edition.