The Deliberative President

Obama

Here are some excerpts from Robert Gates’ Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War that look at some of the decision making aspects under Bush and Obama.

Obama was the most deliberative president I worked for. His approach to problem solving reminded me of Lincoln’s comment on his approach to decision making: “I am never easy when I am handling a thought, till I have bounded it north, and bounded it south, and bounded it east, and bounded it west.” As Obama would tell me on more than one occasion, “I can’t defend it unless I understand it.” I rarely saw him rush to a decision when circumstances allowed him time to gather information , analyze, and reflect. He would sometimes be criticized for his “dilatory” decision making, but I found it refreshing and reassuring, especially since so many pundits and critics seem to think a problem discovered in the morning should be solved by evening. As a participant in that decision-making process, I always felt more confident about the outcome after thorough deliberation. When the occasion demanded it, though, Obama could make a big decision— a life-and-death decision— very fast.

Keep in mind that Gates worked for 8 different presidents. So when he says Obama was the most deliberative president he worked for, he’s coming from a place of experience. But how do you foster deliberation? Obama made some decisions that were controversial with his top senior appointments. Here’s an example,

The president wanted Jim Steinberg, who had been deputy national security adviser under President Clinton, to become deputy secretary of state. Having been a deputy twice myself, I suspect Jim did not want to return to government as a deputy anything. In order to persuade Steinberg to accept the offer, Obama agreed to his request that he be made a member of the Principals Committee and have a seat in National Security Council meetings as well as one on the Deputies Committee. As far as I know, no deputy had ever been given an independent chair at the principals’ table.

Steinberg’s presence on the Principals Committee gave State two voices at the table— two voices that often disagreed. Steinberg would often stake out a position in the Deputies Committee that was at odds with what Hillary believed, then express that position in meetings of the principals and even with the president. Let’s just say that having two State Department positions on an issue was an unnecessary complication in the decision-making process …

Obama also took a “team of rivals” approach, (a play on Lincoln selecting 3 key rivals for Cabinet appointments) for example, by appointing Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State.

Obama also actively encouraged bad news and disagreement.

Less than two weeks after the inaugural, at the end of his weekly meeting with Mullen and me, the president asked me to remain behind for a private conversation. He asked me whether everything was going okay. I told him I thought the team was off to a good start, the chemistry was good, and the principals were working well together. … As Obama had done before on several occasions with all the principals, he encouraged me always to speak up and to be sure to give him bad news or to express disagreement. He concluded with what I thought was a very insightful observation twelve days into his presidency: “What I know concerns me. What I don’t know concerns me even more. What people aren’t telling me worries me the most.” It takes many officials in Washington years to figure that out; some never do.

While Gates isn’t as explicit on the decision process under Bush, we get some insights. At one point, talking about the U.S. role of the Israeli attack on the reactor in Syria (under Bush), he writes:

On our side, a very sensitive and difficult security challenge had been debated openly with no pulled punches. The president heard directly from his senior advisers on a number of occasions and had made a tough decision based on what he heard and on his own instincts. And there had been no leaks. Although I was unhappy with the path we had taken, I told Hadley the episode had been a model of national security decision making. In the end, a big problem was solved and none of my fears were realized. It is hard to criticize success. But we had condoned reaching for a gun before diplomacy could be brought to bear, and we had condoned another preventive act of war. This made me all the more nervous about an even bigger looming national security problem.

The Art and Science of Doing Nothing

I have often wondered whether especially those days when we are forced to remain idle are not precisely the days spent in the most profound activity. Whether our actions themselves, even if they do not take place until later, are nothing more than the last reverberations of a vast movement that occurs within us during idle days.

In any case, it is very important to be idle with confidence, with devotion, possibly even with joy. The days when even our hands do not stir are so exceptionally quiet that it is hardly possible to raise them without hearing a whole lot.

Rainer Maria Rilke

Idleness is a lost art. That’s the message behind Andrew Smart’s book: Autopilot: The Art and Science of Doing Nothing. “Being idle,” he writes, “is one of the most important activities in life.”

But all over the world something else is happening. We’re asked to do more, work harder, and strive to make every moment efficient. The message behind this book is just the opposite. You should do less, not more.

Neuroscientific evidence argues that your brain needs to rest, right now. While our minds are exquisitely evolved for intense action, in order to function normally our brains also need to be idle— a lot of the time, it turns out.

Chronic busyness is not only bad for your brain but can have serious health consequences. “In the short term,” Smart writes, “busyness destroys creativity, self-knowledge, emotional well-being, your ability to be social— and it can damage your cardiovascular health.”

Our brain, much like an airplane, has an autopilot, which we enter when resting and “relinquishing manual control.”

The autopilot knows where you really want to go, and what you really want to do. But the only way to find out what your autopilot knows is to stop flying the plane, and let your autopilot guide you. Just as pilots become dangerously fatigued while flying airplanes manually, all of us need to take a break and let our autopilots fly our planes more of the time.

Yet we hate idleness don’t we? Isn’t that just a waste?

Our contradictory fear of being idle, together with our preference for sloth , may be a vestige from our evolutionary history. For most of our evolution, conserving energy was our number one priority because simply getting enough to eat was a monumental physical challenge. Today, survival does not require much (if any ) physical exertion, so we have invented all kinds of futile busyness. Given the slightest or even a specious reason to do something, people will become busy. People with too much time on their hands tend to become unhappy or bored.

Yet, Smart agues, boredom is the key to self-knowledge.

What comes into your consciousness when you are idle can often be reports from the depths of your unconscious self— and this information may not always be pleasant. Nonetheless, your brain is likely bringing it to your attention for a good reason . Through idleness, great ideas buried in your unconsciousness have the chance to enter your awareness.

A brief history of idleness.

At least since Homer we’ve been ambivalent on the subject. In the Odyssey, the Lotus-eaters lolled around all day “munching lotus” and were both hospitable and seemingly quite content. But they were a threat to Odysseus and his crew. When he arrived at the land of the Lotus-eaters, the workaholic captain sent a couple of his men to investigate the locals. The Lotus-eaters “did them no hurt” but instead offered Odysseus’s men some of their brew, which was so overpowering that the Greeks gave up all thought of returning home. Odysseus, the personification of the heroic CEO, forced the affected men back to the ship and then tied them to the ship’s benches. He recognized that if the rest of the crew got a taste of the drug, they would never leave the island, and ordered the ship to cast off. In Samuel Butler’s translation, “they took their places and smote the grey sea with their oars.”

Despite the Western cliché of China as a country where work, productivity, and industry are enshrined as the greatest of ideals, during Confucian times idleness wasn’t a sub-culture but an integral part of the culture. A Confucian gentleman grew long fingernails to prove that he did not have to work with his hands. Confucianism actually disdained hard work and instead idealized leisure and effortlessness. According to Lawrence E. Harrison, a senior research fellow at Tufts, “for the Chinese, Sisyphus is not a tragedy but a hilarious joke.” Harrison writes that the highest philosophical principle of Taoism is wu-wei, or non-effort, which means that a truly enlightened person either spiritually or intellectually goes about life with the minimum expenditure of energy. In military matters, the ancient Chinese held that a good general forces the enemy to exhaust himself and waits for the right opportunity to attack, using the circumstances to his advantage while doing as little as possible. This is in contrast to the Western idea of trying to achieve some predefined objective with overwhelming effort and force. It is thus paradoxical that in spite of China’s long history of embracing idleness, it’s currently thought of as the world’s factory. This might be because, as a Chinese physicist told me recently, China has only “overcome” Confucianism in the last half century or so.

With the coming of the Enlightenment in the West, as work became mechanized, bureaucratized, and de-humanized, philosophers fought back. At that point, as the capitalist world system started an unprecedented period of expansion, Western culture popularized the concept of the “the noble savage,” one of whose particular attributes was lounging around and eating the fruit that supposedly fell into his lap. The incomparable Samuel Johnson published a series of essays on the benefits of being idle in the periodical The Idler from 1758 to 1760. He wrote that, “Idleness … may be enjoyed without injury to others; and is therefore not watched like Fraud, which endangers property, or like Pride, which naturally seeks its gratifications in another’s inferiority. Idleness is a silent and peaceful quality, that neither raises envy by ostentation, nor hatred by opposition; and therefore no body is busy to censure or detect it.”

But the capitalists could not be stopped. The 19th century saw the advent of the global industrial economy. As human beings came to function like cogs in the complex machine called the factory, Frederick Taylor, godfather of the efficient American work ethic, introduced “scientific management” to capitalist overseers in The Principles of Scientific Management. His goal was to integrate the life of the worker with the life of business, by the means of what was then considered scientific understanding of humans. Taylor sought to increase production efficiency by minutely measuring the time and motion of tasks. Anticipating modern productivity fads like Six Sigma, Taylor looked to replace each tradesman’s knowledge and experience with a standardized and “scientific” technique for doing work. While Taylorism was and still is hugely popular among the business class, humanists of all stripes were unenthusiastic. In 1920, perhaps in reaction to increasing Taylorization, the concept of the robot— a fully mechanized, soulless worker, physically as well as spiritually dehumanized— was introduced by Czech playwright Karel Čapek. The very word “robot” means “worker” in Czech. The same year, American humorist Christopher Morley published his now-classic essay On Laziness. “The man who is really, thoroughly, and philosophically slothful,” he wrote, “is the only thoroughly happy man. It is the happy man who benefits the world. The conclusion is inescapable.”

With the advent of the 1980s and Ronald Reagan, the mantra that productivity was essential to self-esteem took hold. It was good for America, it was good for business. Laziness, on the other hand, was anti-American …

Autopilot: The Art and Science of Doing Nothing goes on to explore the benefits and history of idleness in more detail.

Sensemaking as a Complement to Default Thinking

Most of the time we devise strategies in the default mode of problem solving, prioritizing maximum growth and profit through rational and logical analysis. But we already know that rational and logical analysis doesn’t always result in the best decisions.

In The Moment of Clarity: Using the Human Sciences to Solve Your Toughest Business Problems Christian Madsbjerg and Mikkel Rasmussen write:

The ideal is to turn strategy work into a rigorous discipline with the use of deductive logic, a well-structured hypothesis, and a thorough collection of evidence and data. Such problem solving has dominated most research and teaching in business schools over the last decades and has formed the guiding principles of many global management consultancies. Slowly but steadily, this mind-set has gained dominance in business culture over the last thirty years. Today it is the unspoken default tool for solving all problems.

This mindset is almost scientific in the quest for precision.

… learn from past examples to create a hypothesis you can test with numbers. As it uses inductive reasoning for its foundation, it is enormously successful at analyzing information extrapolated from a known set of data from the past. Default thinking helps us create efficiencies, optimize resources, balance product portfolios, increase productivity, invest in markets with the shortest and biggest payback , cut operational complexity, and generally get more bang for the buck. In short, it works extraordinarily well when the business challenge demands an increase in the productivity of a system.

But this method often falls short. And one area where it falls short is people’s behaviour. “When it comes to cultural shifts, the use of a hypothesis based on past examples will give us a false sense of confidence, sending us astray into unknown waters with the wrong map,” the authors write.

Certain problems benefit from a linear and rational approach, while other, less straightforward challenges—navigating in a fog—benefit from the problem solving utilized in the human sciences like philosophy, history, the arts, and anthropology. We call this problem-solving method sensemaking.

Sensemaking is really about finding how things are experienced through culture.

The hard sciences involving mathematics and universal laws tell us the way things are and tend to take the main spotlight when we discuss our understanding of the world. This tendency is so common, we often disregard the wide range of sciences that are used to shed light on other phenomena, or the way things are experienced in culture. If default thinking shows us what exists in the foreground (e.g., “we are losing our market share in competitive athletic apparel”), the human sciences investigate the invisible background— the layered nuance behind what we perceive (e.g., “well -being, not competition , is the main motivating factor for many people participating in sports”).

How we experience the world may be as important as, or more important than the hard, objective facts about the world. This is especially true for the specific set of problems where past data or scenarios no longer seem relevant.

Default thinking and sensemaking are complementary tools.

How default thinking and sensemaking complement one another

How default thinking and sensemaking complement one another.

But we tend to see leadership more in the default thinking way, which makes perfect sense. Who doesn’t want to be hypothesis driven, quantitative, and linear in their approach to solving problems? Most of these things are visible, which has an added benefit too. But if this is the only tool in our toolbox we’re going to fall short.

The difference between decision makers and sensemakers.

The difference between decision makers and sensemakers.

It was perfectly rational, yet wrong, for the steel companies in The Innovator’s Dilemma to cede low-margin market share to the mini-mills. This is the decision we’d all make if we look at it through the lens of finance and default thinking. In my interview with Forbes last year, I elaborated on this concept as well with the example of a textile company. It’s only when you approach problems through different lenses that you can solve them.

The Moment of Clarity: Using the Human Sciences to Solve Your Toughest Business Problems goes on to explain how humanities help solved some of our toughest business problems.

Genevieve Bell on the Value of Humanities in an Executive Role

Genevieve Bell

Genevieve Bell, is perhaps the most powerful and influential social scientist in the tech industry. Speaking to Christian Madsbjerg in an excerpt from The Moment of Clarity: Using the Human Sciences to Solve Your Toughest Business Problems, she says something quite profound on executive management and cognitive dissonance.

I’ve been really struck by what it takes to be an executive at a company like Intel. Increasingly, much like in my own training in the social sciences, it requires holding these multiple competing realities in one’s head at the same time. An executive has to be able to hold the reality of what the company needs to be now with what it needs to be ten years from now, and these concepts are often at odds with one another. You also have to hold the realities of different markets in your head that have completely different formulations of success. In the US, you have to think about miles per gallon and environmentally sensitive processes, and in China you just have to go really fast. For Intel executives from a culture of engineering, this is really hard. They are taught to think that dissonance should be resolved in the design: “There is one answer, and we have to get it right.”

And a few sentences later she explained how we lose track of what’s important to our customer. “Moore’s Law stated that semiconductors were going to get smaller,” Bell explained, “but it didn’t tell us anything about what people were going to do with them or why a consumer should be interested. It started to become increasingly clear to all of us that consumers just didn’t care about the same things that we cared about. They weren’t necessarily engaged in our narrative.”

While not a silver bullet, one thing I see more and more through my engagements with companies is the value of humanities. Humanities offer a different perspective on the same problems, often with different (and better) results, they bring a better sense of people and their behaviours. When you’re solving difficult problems you want cognitive diversity.

Max Bazerman: Books for Leaders

Max Bazerman, the Jesse Isidor Straus Professor of Business Administration  at Harvard Business School, recommends 7 reads for leaders.

Max Bazerman, the Jesse Isidor Straus Professor of Business Administration
at Harvard Business School, recommends 7 reads for leaders.

Max Bazerman, the author of the best book on general decision making that I’ve ever read, Judgment in Managerial Decision Making, came out with 7 book recommendations.

I hadn’t heard of two of these, which I picked up.

1. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

I think we’ve all heard of this one. Bazerman says:

The development of decision research is the most pronounced influence of the social sciences on professional education and societal change that we have witnessed in the last half century. Kahneman is the greatest social scientist of our time, and Thinking, Fast and Slow provides an integrated history of the fields of behavioral decision research and behavioral economics, the role of our two different systems for processing information (System 1 vs. System 2), and the wonderful story of Kahneman’s relationship with Amos Tversky (Tversky would have shared Kahneman’s Nobel Prize had he not passed away at an early age.).

2. Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness by Richard Thaler & Cass Sunstein

This is another one I think most of you have heard of but it’s a classic. I once used this book as the foundation to make the case to a management team for hiring a group of behavioural psychologists. Along with Thinking, Fast and Slow it is part of the ultimate behavioural economics reading list.

Nudge takes the study of how humans depart from rational decision making and turns this work into a prescriptive strategy for action. Over the last 40 years, we have learned a great deal about the systematic and predictable ways in which the human mind departs from rational action. Yet, we have observed dozens of studies that show the limits of trying to debias the human mind. Nudge highlights that we do not need to debias humans, we simply need to understand humans, and create decision architectures with a realistic understanding of the human to guide humans to wise decisions. Nudge has emerged as the bible of behavioral insight teams that are transforming the ways countries help to devise wise policies.

3. The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis

Lewis is an amazing writer, with the talent to capture amazing features of how humans have the capacity to overcome common limitations. Moneyball (that would have been on the list, but I imposed a one book per author limit) was a fascinating look about how overcoming common human limits allowed baseball leaders to develop unique and effective leadership strategies. In The Big Short, Lewis shows how people can notice, even when most of us are failing to do so. Lewis shows that it was possible to notice vast problems with our economy by 2007, and tells the amazing account of those who did.

4. Eyewitness To Power: The Essence of Leadership Nixon to Clinton by David Gergen

This one looks fascinating.

David Gergen is an amazingly insightful intellect about so many things, including the nature of Presidential leadership. His writing is wonderful, and his ability to pull out the nuggets of effective leadership in his closing chapter is a lasting contribution. You will learn about four Presidents that have escaped you in the past, and in the process, learn some insights about leadership in your organization.

5. Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them by Joshua Greene
This book has been recommended to me by so many smart people that there must be something to it.

Joshua Greene is a wonderful mix of insightful philosopher, careful psychologist, and keen observer of human morality. If you have ever been confronted with the famous “trolley problem”, and want to learn more, Moral Tribes is the place to go. Whether you are a philosopher looking for a new path, a psychologist looking for insight from a new direction, or simply a human who wants to understand your own morality, this book is terrific.

6. Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending by Elizabeth Dunn & Michael Norton

For decades, the study of consumer behavior has been dominated by the question of how marketers can understand consumers to sell their products and services. Dunn and Norton use contemporary social science to provide insight into what consumers can do to make themselves, rather than marketers, happy.

7. The Art and Science of Negotiation by Howard Raiffa

The Art and Science of Negotiation is where it all began from an intellectual standpoint, where Raiffa provides insight into how to think systematically in a world where you cannot count on the other side to do so.

Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want

"The main problem is that we think we understand the minds of others, and even our own mind, better than we actually do."

“The main problem is that we think we understand the minds of others, and even our own mind, better than we actually do.”

Despite the fact I do it countless times a day, I’m sometimes terrible at it. Our lives are guided by our inferences about what others think, believe, feel, and want. Understanding the minds of others is one of the keys to social success. With that in mind, I read Nicholas Epley’s new book Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want.

While we can understand what others think, believe and feel, sometimes we’re wrong. The book’s goal is to bring “your brain’s greatest ability out of the shadows and into the light of scientific inspection.”

That ability is our sixth sense.

I am going to tell you about the kind of mind reading you do intuitively every day of your life, dozens of times a day, when you infer what others are thinking, feeling, wanting, or intending. The kind that enables you to build and maintain the intimate relationships that make life worth living, to maintain a desired reputation in the eyes of others, to work effectively in teams, and to outwit and outlast your competitors. The kind that forms the foundation of all social interaction, creating the web of presumptions and assumptions that enables large societies to function.

This sixth sense is always on. A great example is the feeling you get when a co-worker calls in sick and you’re confident they’re lying. In this way Epley believes we’re all mind readers.

It’s easy to understand why. You and I are members of one of the most social species on the planet. No human being succeeds in life alone. Getting along and getting ahead requires coordinating with others, either in cooperation as friends, spouses, teammates, and coworkers, or in competition as adversaries, opponents, or rivals.

We’re so good at this sixth sense that it operates at an almost unconscious level. As philosopher Jerry Fodor has written, “Commonsense psychology works so well, it disappears.” Some of us, however, are better at mind reading and social understanding than others.

That we cannot read anyone’s mind perfectly does not mean we are never accurate, of course, but our mistakes are especially interesting because they are a major source of wreckage in our relationships, careers, and lives, leading to needless conflict and misunderstanding. Our mistakes lead to ineffective solutions to some of society’s biggest problems, and they can send nations into needless wars with the worst of consequences.

Our mistakes are somewhat predictable and therefore, argues Epley, correctable. They happen in two ways:

Our mistakes come from the two most basic questions that underlie any social interaction. First, does “it” have a mind? And second, what state is that other mind in?

We can make mistakes with the first question by failing to engage our mind-reading ability when we should, thereby failing to consider the mind of another and running the risk of treating him or her like a relatively mindless animal or object. These mistakes are at the heart of dehumanization. But we can also make mistakes by engaging our ability when we shouldn’t, thereby attributing a mind to something that is actually mindless.

Once we’re trying to read the minds of others, we can make mistakes with the second question by misunderstanding others’ thoughts, beliefs , attitudes, or emotions, thereby misunderstanding what state another mind is in. Our most common mistakes come from excessive egocentrism, overreliance on stereotypes, and an all-to-easy assumption that others’ minds match their actions …

All of these mistakes have the same basic consequence of leading us to think that others’ minds are more simplistic than they actually are.

Let’s take a closer look at when we “fail to recognize the fully human mind of another person,” which is the essence of dehumanization. This can happen “any time you fail to attend to the mind of another person, because this can also lead you to believe that another person has weaker mental capacities than you do: a lesser mind.” In the book Epley describes how doctors used to believe that children could not feel pain, how employers often think of employees as mindless (which leads bosses to over-estimate the importance of money and underestimate the intrinsic incentives like autonomy, pride, and mastery), and how we generally lack consideration for other people in certain social settings.

Enemies think of each other as unfeeling savages. Consider the story of how Brut Champagne got its name.

When the French began making champagne for the British, the champagne makers quickly learned that the Brits preferred much drier champagne than the French did. In fact, the French found this version to be unpalatable. They named this inferior champagne brut sauvage, for who could have such unsophisticated preferences other than a savage brut? The joke was eventually on the French: brut is now the most popular variety of champagne in the world.

The Lens Problem
We have a lens problem. The lens shapes what we see. And we react to what we see. “I’m right, and you’re biased.”

The lens in your eye filters light onto your retina, allowing you to see the world before your eye. Likewise, our own minds serve as a lens made up of beliefs, attitudes, and knowledge through which we perceive the world. If you look at an object through two different lenses, such as a telescope versus a microscope, then the very same object will look very different.

… This is a problem because you look through a lens rather than at it directly, which can make it hard to tell that your vision is being affected by it. Similarly, research makes it very clear that people have a hard time recognizing the ways in which their own perceptions are biased by the interpretive lens of beliefs, attitudes, and knowledge that they view it through. This handicaps our ability to understand the minds of others in two ways. First, people tend to overestimate the extent to which others believe, think, and feel as they do. This kind of egocentrism is a chronic mistake. Second, when people find out that others perceive the world differently than they do, the inability to recognize one’s own bias leads people to think that others are the ones who are biased. The fingerprints of the lens problem are at the center of almost any difference of opinion.

Remember Kathryn Schultz on what happens when someone disagrees with us?

Perspective Taking
Most of us are taught that we should put ourselves in the shoes of others to better understand their thoughts and feelings but this may not be the best strategy.

Everyone from Dale Carnegie to Barack Obama has suggested that the true way to understand other people is to honestly put yourself in another person’s shoes. My research, however, suggests that this does little or nothing to increase how accurately you understand the minds of others. The main problem with this solution to social misunderstanding is that it relies completely on being able to use knowledge that a person already has in his or her head to understand another’s perspective. But if you have a mistaken understanding of another person to begin with, then no amount of perspective taking is going to make your judgment systematically more accurate. When we ask husbands and wives, for instance, to predict each others’ attitudes, those we tell to adopt the other person’s perspective as honestly as they can actually become a little less accurate than those who do not adopt the other person’s perspective. In conflict, we find in our research that opposing sides tend to misunderstand each other even more when we ask them to honestly adopt the other side’s perspective. Perspective taking can have many beneficial consequences in social life, but systematically making people understand each other better does not seem to be one of them.

Epley prefers “perspective getting” to increase understanding.

If you actually want to understand the mind of another person, you have to get that person’s perspective as directly as you possibly can. You do that in one of two ways, either by being the other person or by having the other person tell you honestly and openly what’s actually on his or her mind. Court judges understand, for instance, what waterboarding feels like when they actually experience it directly, as the journalist Christopher Hitchens did, or when they listen to another person’s honest report of the experience directly, as you can by reading Christopher Hitchens’ account of his experience in Vanity Fair.

The Mind is a Beautiful Thing

You’ve never actually seen a belief, smelled an attitude, or poked a feeling. No intention has ever walked past you on the sidewalk. You can’t weigh a want. Like atoms before electron microscopes, minds are inferred rather than observed. They exist only as a theory each of us uses to explain both our own and other people’s behaviour. … But what a marvelous theory it is. Human beings have been explaining one another for millennia without ever referencing a single neuron because the sense we’ve evolved is of such practical value. Mental concepts like attitudes, beliefs, intentions , and preferences are so highly correlated with whatever is actually going on in the brain that we can use our theory about other people’s minds to predict their behaviour.

And in part, this ability to reason about the minds of others is what makes us human. We live in groups, large or small, and key to that social relationship is to understand people’s thoughts, beliefs, emotions, etc. The bigger the group the harder this is. Not only do you have to keep track of more people but you have to keep track of more possibilities.

Mindwise is a fascinating exploration of understanding other people.

Ryan Holiday on Growth Hacking

Growth Hacking

Growth hacking really is a mindset rather than a tool kit.

“A growth hacker doesn’t see marketing as something one does,” writes Ryan Holiday in his book Growth Hacker Marketing: A Primer on the Future of PR, Marketing, and Advertising, “but rather as something one builds into the product itself.”

That’s interesting. The old way of marketing, which still exists in many forms, is to spend money talking about the product. But technology has changed things. Not only has it changed how traditional marketing is done, it’s enabled an entirely different type of marketing: growth hacking.

Holiday defines growth hacking as:

A growth hacker is someone who has thrown out the playbook of traditional marketing and replaced it with only what is testable, trackable, and scalable. Their tools are e-mails, pay-per-click ads, blogs, and platform APIs instead of commercials, publicity , and money. While their marketing brethren chase vague notions like “branding” and “mind share,” growth hackers relentlessly pursue users and growth— and when they do it right, those users beget more users , who beget more users. They are the inventors, operators, and mechanics of their own self-sustaining and self-propagating growth machine that can take a start-up from nothing to something.

One of the biggest benefits of the changing marketing landscape is that it addresses one of the biggest gaps. In the ‘old’ way of marketing, and I’m simplifying here, you’d run a campaign on radio and television and hope product sales would soar. But you’d have no way to measure the marketing return on investment.

“Marketing has always been about the same thing—who your customers are and where they are,” says Noah Kagan, a growth hacker at Facebook, Mint, and AppSumo.

“What growth hackers do,” Holiday writes:

is focus on the “who” and “where” more scientifically, in a more measurable way. Whereas marketing was once brand based, with growth hacking it becomes metric and ROI driven. Suddenly, finding customers and getting attention for your product become no longer a guessing game. But this is more than just marketing with better metrics.

That’s why this new form of marketing is more adaptable to the future.

Still unclear on what Growth Hacking is? That’s because it’s more of a mindset than anything in particular.

Growth hacking is not a 1-2-3 sequence, but instead a fluid process. Growth hacking at its core means putting aside the notion that marketing is a self-contained act that begins toward the end of a company’s or a product’s development life cycle. It is, instead, a way of thinking and looking at your business.

And here’s the key and it’s something that my friends in marketing have long complained of: they’ve been left out of the loop.

The new marketing mindset begins not a few weeks before launch but, in fact, during the development and design phase.

The best marketing decision is to have a product that fulfills a real and compelling need.

Growth hackers believe that products—even whole businesses and business models—can and should be changed until they are primed to generate explosive reactions from the first people who see them.

The best way to do this, argues Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup, is to create a “minimum viable product” and improve it based on feedback. If this sounds like something we’ve talked about before, you’re right. It’s a combination of the Minimum Effective Dose and disruptive innovation.

This is in stark contrast to how a lot of companies operate. Most people try to design and release what they deem is their “final” product. This is what we’re taught in business school. Identify a need and fulfill it with all the bells and whistles. But your customers don’t need all these bells and whistles. Need further proof? Just look at Basecamp which blows Microsoft Project out of the water, in part, because of what it doesn’t do. It’s simple. The guys at 37 Signals understand what people really need and do an awesome job of delivering on that.

Holiday argues:

Isolating who your customers are, figuring out their needs, designing a product that will blow their minds—these are marketing decisions, not just development and design choices.

How can you do this? Take a page from Amazon.

At Amazon, for instance, it’s company policy that before developing a new product the product manager must submit a press release to their supervisor for that item before the team even starts working on it. The exercise forces the team to focus on exactly what its potential new product is and what’s special about it.

A good idea is no longer enough. There are good ideas all over the place. The adage build it and they will come is one we see through the lens of availability bias. We see the winners and ignore the losers, our calculation of alternative histories is off. Today you need to acquire customers. How you do this matters.

And the old alternative, traditional marketing, looks less and less appealing. Who can afford a business model where marketing costs of up to $400 a person are the norm. It doesn’t scale. It’s not easily measurable. It’s much easier to deliver a good product and ask for referrals.

This is where books like Contagious come in. In that book, social scientist Jonah Berger explains that one of the most crucial factors to making something catch on is to make something public. “Making things more observable makes them easier to imitate,” he writes, “which makes them more likely to become popular. … We need to design products and initiatives that advertise themselves and create behavioral residue that sticks around even after people have bought the product or espoused the idea.”

Growth Hacker Marketing is a great primer on where marketing might be headed and how innovative companies are considering growth while they develop products.

5 Short Reads to Expand Your Mind

I’ve read almost 30 books so far this year. Here are five that expanded my mind.

Tempo: Timing, Tactics and Strategy in Narrative-Driven Decision-Making
A lot of books talk about the what and how in decision-making. This book also talks about the when, where, and who, with when being the driving question the book seeks to explore. Tempo has three elements: rhythm, emotion, and energy. Usually we adapt to the tempo of our environment. It’s a lot harder to set the tempo or change it. Wholly original and utterly fascinating.

Last Ape Standing: The Seven-Million-Year Story of How and Why We Survived
The fascinating and somewhat counter-intuitive tale of how being born more prematurely than others, a uniquely long and rich childhood full of play actually helped us increase the odds of survival. While this isn’t as good as Song of the Dodo in terms of science writing, it’s up there.

Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight
A great read. Like some introverts, sociopaths mimic the way other people behave so they can “hide in plain sight.” The book takes you into the mind of an intelligent sociopath and is hard to put down. Maybe not a book you want to read in public though, lest people get the wrong idea about you.

Zen in the Art of Archery
The author, Eugen Herrigel, spent time in Japan after World War II and wanted to better understand Zen Buddhism. This is impossible to understand through books and requires an activity. He picked archery and found a Zen master who reluctantly accepted him as a student. Herrigel, being a Westerner, sought rapid progress and linear improvement through technical mastery. This wasn’t enough and became self-defeating. To truly master an art it has to become an “artless art” where it grows out of unconsciousness. Thus archery became a path to greater understanding.

Brave New War: The Next Stage of Terrorism and the End of Globalization
A fascinating read about how warfare is evolving. Robb examines Fourth Generation Warfare (4GW), which is essentially loosely networked groups against states. 4GW is the first generation of non conventional wars. There are no pivotal moments on a battlefield that decide the war. Think along the lines of Al-Qaeda and Anonymous. 4GW is all about turning the strengths of States against them and causing asymmetric financial hardship. While I appreciate his approach and the systems thinking, Robb is still too conventional. I think his expertise on the subject creates a bit of a blind spot when it comes to warfare and the internet. Still, this is a must read.