Transparency beats asymmetries

As I begin this post I’m realizing transparency is a big topic, but it’s coming up all over the place in business, personal, and social situations, so I want to start picking it apart.  I noticed Seth Godin’s post earlier this week, and liked his statement that the issue is not to be viewed as a moral right, but a business tactic, tool or threat.  So this post is about sharing information as a business tactic to win complex games.

I’ve had many discussions with friends about putting things on the Web and how fearful they are about things being used against them.  I hear comments about invasion of privacy, loss of employment, Gattaca and Big Brother.   One of my best friends refuses to participate in social networking sites so he won’t make it any easier for anyone to find out stuff about him.  He’s a very sharp guy, and I think he is playing a good poker game.  And, as Seth points out, poker is not much fun if you can see everyone’s cards.

Ostrich head in sandFor me the issue here is not about transparency, but what game you are playing.  Poker is a small scale strategy game pitting one person against another.  Transparency is the exact wrong thing to do in that game.  But most “games” in life and business are far more complex, and given our 21st Century context (see Thomas Friedman), I think it’s dangerous to live life with a poker face.  It’s more like having one’s head in the sand.

In a complex system, transparency is important as it relates to information asymmetries.  This is when one “side” in a transaction knows more than another.  In such cases, people tend to undervalue an opportunity to avoid risks based on gaps in knowledge. It has been shown in economic theory that the overall value of a system is increased when everyone has access to the same information.

In markets, individuals benefit greatly by sharing their information with others to allow for fair exchanges.  This sharing brings the added bonus of systemic aggregation of information (the Internet enables this like never before).  Aggregation allows people to discover patterns that provide opportunities to adjust tactics and “win” more often.

So here’s some “games of life” to think of as markets instead of as poker:

  • Job interviews/hiring decisions… what if employers and employees knew more about jobs and candidates? Better alignment of jobs and people lead to greater engagement and less turnover.
  • Health… what if people were able to share their health information more fully? They could see trends and patterns and share them with medical professionals to get earlier and better treatment.
  • Business… what if employers shared their performance goals and metrics more fully (even when it’s bad news)?  Employees could intervene earlier and with greater permission to prevent negative trends.
  • Dating… more disclosure about values and interests leads to better match making and longer lasting relationships.

More learning to blog

It’s been about month since I started this blog and I’m having fun with it.  Here are some more tips I’ve gotten and things I’ve learned so far:

  • Try the 10×10 exercise: Jay Goldman suggested I think of 10 categories and then 10 posts for each of the categories before I even started.  This has proven to be great advice, I get plenty of new ideas every day (so far) but having the 10×10 framework really helps structure this space and keep my posts on target.
  • Try a series: I was inspired by Diego Rodriguez and his series on innovation.  I don’t have to post a sequel everyday, but if I’m stuck I’ve got an easy back up idea.  It also helps to think about this ahead of time and be on the look out for things that make the posts in the series more timely, tangible and relevant.
  • Readers love lists: Dan Debow suggested using bullets or numbers to help readers quickly digest content.
  • Link to others: I’m still struggling with “track backs” but I’ve found it very easy to use posts from other people to make my posts more interesting.  I connected to a comment from Diego on Twitter and he then tweeted about my post.  Got the highest volume of traffic to my blog yet!

More to come as I stumble along.

Free advice for GM #3-Put SAAB back on the edge

I was going to go with Saturn next, but a tweet from Diego on Metacool got me motivated to play with SAAB.  He says, SAAB should get back into rallying, which lends support to my understanding of this brand.

Rally to the edge

Rally to the edge

Technology, cool, edgy, unique.   Born from jets.  Svenska Aeroplan Aktie Bolaget is Swedish Airplane Company in Swedish.  Somewhere it all fell apart and they ended up another mediocre GM-mobile that had no style, no technology, and poor quality.

The organization behind an edgy car has to be edgy.  This is called brand integration (the outside and the inside have to align).  To create edgy things, people have to take risks and push the envelope.  Edge is by definition NOT THE MAINSTREAM.  Okay, I’m ranting… but it’s amazing to me how something edgy can get so rounded off to fit into a corporate model, that it’s no longer viable.

The interdependent organization archetype is a great model for SAAB because it could bring together an array of people and companies from many centers of excellence to work on the coolest automotive technology in the world.  There would need to be lots of experimentation (and failure) going on to find out what new ideas work and what theories don’t hold water.  You just can’t pull this kind of behavior off, if you are trying to please heads of engineering and design at the top of a corporate pyramid.

Key traits of the new SAAB organization:

1. Ad hoc reciprocal structure- each car should be viewed as a project, with full design-build responsibilities.  The designs should connect to the heritage of SAAB (e.g. efficient drag coefficient) but the technology should represent the best of what’s possible in the current market.  These teams should work under temporary agreements with other companies to bring resources necessary for manufacturing.

2. Each model is an experiment- transparency while prototyping (instead of secrecy) promotes involvement from others and improves quality.  Check out Martin Eberhard’s post on how blogs helped at Tesla Motors.  Instead of a long line of reductionist designs, hidden in secrecy while the companies round off the edges to save money, the clean slate approach gives the model team a chance to be truly innovative.  An open process pushes everyone to solve the complex tensions between viability, feasibility, and desirability.  The prototypes should be rallying all over the world to show off and test the new ideas.

3. Entrepreneurial leaders- leadership in today’s auto market is coming from disruptors like Tesla and Fiskar Automotive.  These are entrepreneurial ventures with something to prove and lots of backing to get there.  Each model should be considered and investment and live up to a market based promise of innovation.  Leadership teams should have to start over again with each model to prove this new idea is worth making (and buying).

Accurate Self Awareness

I spend a lot of time talking to people about getting good feedback.  Usually, they’ve picked up somehow that everything is not going along as well as they’d like.  It could be a friend saying, “you should go talk with so-and-so, I think you two are not on the same page.”  Or, maybe it’s a boss telling you to shape up in a particular area.  Or, maybe you’ve noticed nobody will sit next to you in the cafeteria.

Humans are social animals
The human desire to achieve is outdone only by the human desire to fit in, so these kind of scenarios are usually unsettling at the core of your emotional well-being.  The “reptilian brain stem” portion of your brain starts sending signals to your body that you are in danger and you feel stress and anxiety.

Downward spiral

Downward spiral

Avoid the downward spiral
Over time, this is really bad for your body if you don’t deal with it. In the short term, this is really bad for your job because a lot of your energy is tied up in worry, defensiveness, etc.   Lots of people begin to “ping” those around them to see if this perceived threat is real.  Unfortunately, if this is not done well it feeds the problem and the spiral takes you down and then out to the market for a new job.

Tips for getting an accurate self assessment:

1. Ask better questions. A generic “how am I doing?” question usually leads to a neutral, safe response like, “fine.”  This gives you a false impression and accelerates the negative spiral by reinforcing your positive self image in the face of some legitimate concerns.  Instead of the generic, open-ended approach, ask a specific question about a specific concern you have.   See my “that’s a good question” post for some tips on this.

2. Ask the right people. In a panic situation, we tend to go to our closest allies for guidance and support.  But you need to build perspective when you are unsure, so extend your reach and ask some people you know will be more critical (helpful) and less inclined to protect you.  Having your feedback biased to your closer colleagues means your awareness is biased too.

3. Reduce risk for truthful input. Recognize that most people are not going to tell you their full critical opinion

Scaredy Cats

Scaredy Cats

because it is “risky” to do so.  They may not want to hurt your feelings, may feel their opinion is not important, may believe it’s not their place to be critical of you, or be afraid that they’ll get a reputation for being harsh or unforgiving.  Try these two ways to get the full story from others:

  • Build trust and be persistent.  Think of this like coaxing a cat out from under the bed.  Here kitty, kitty…
  • Provide an anonymous channel to you.  You can ask a friend to gather some input for you, or you can use a tool like Rypple to do it yourself.

That's a good question!

I’ve been playing with feedback again lately, and I am currently fascinated with the response people have when asked a good question.  They usually smile!

Smile!Interestingly, research on influence shows that having a smile on your face makes you more influential and more successful in relationships (Womack, Hertenstein).  And, importantly, authentic smiles are more effective than fake ones.  So check this out:  I can help you influence me if my question makes you smile.  Just think of the therapy and training costs you can avoid!

So what kind of questions make people smile?  Often they get right to the heart of a matter and disarm someone who is feeling defensive, causing them to relax, and smile in relief.  Other times, they reveal something new to the person being asked, so the discovery makes them smile in delight.

Either way, I think that asking a good question makes it easier for someone to answer and they appreciate the help.

I think the best questions, start with a small disclosure or observation, showing that you’ve noticed something about the other person or need their help with something.

Here’s a few examples:

I noticed you seemed confused by my presentation.  Is there something I could have done better? (Disarming)

Did you know your input during the meeting really helped me? (Discovery)  How could I have gotten to that point more quickly?

I’m hoping to get a promotion soon. (Disclosure)  What should I be working on to increase my chances of getting it?

It probably helps if you smile while you ask your question.  Okay, everybody head to a mirror to see if you smile when you talk.  It works!

Getting Leverage for Change

I just saw a great post on Seth’s blog about challenging convention.  I really admire how he generates cool insights and puts them simply so they are easy to remember.  As I was reading his tips for challenging convention, it occurred to me that there’s a deeper issue below such challenges.  He refers to the convention as “it” and I began to wonder about the possibilities of “it”.

leverageOne of my favorite movie lines is “there could be anything in there!” (from: A Christmas Story), and this statement is so true here.  It really matters in his third point about leverage.  If “it” is a simple change to a control knob, your leverage challenge is relatively straightforward and concrete.  If “it” is a new paradigm of consumption, your leverage challenge requires a whole different level of challenging.  Some types of leverage are more powerful than others, but most importantly you should use the right one for the task at hand.

For example: are you trying to challenge the convention of a controlling music volume (Seth’s example)?  By shifting the convention from a physical knob to a digital slider you can focus on the physical parameters of the human/machine interaction.  But if a person is not already of the mindset to interact with music via a computer, your users will experience a disconnect.  The more effective leverage point would be to focus on the mindset of listening to music via a computer first, then shifting your focus to the digital interaction.

I believe this is what Apple did with the first iPod.  The early generation machines still had familiar physcial controls.  Now the iPhone has a completely digital touch screen.  If they had not first gotten people to listen to music via the iTunes system, I would think the adoption of the touch screen may have struggled.

For more ideas about leverage points, Dana Meadows provides a great spectrum in her article: Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System.  Check out the summary on Wikipedia.

Infectious Action

Here in Palo Alto there’s a movement afoot.  The folks over at the Stanford are hoping to get a portion of downtown Palo Alto to become a pedestrian mall.  Check out the post on Metacool by Diego Rodriguez for more details and to join in the action.

I love that they have a class called Creating Infectious Action (CIA) there.  Based on the recent scare caused by the swine flu, infectious transmission of very small things is a force to respect.  I loved Stephen King’s view of this topic (The Stand) as it plays on all of the big fears involved in such an outbreak.  The point is, if you want to make change happen, understanding how this dynamic works is like being a change magician.

Damon Centola at MIT has done some great research to point out how social networking theory needs a bit of a makeover.  In short, the original “small world” theory (Granovetter, 1973) proposed that people who don’t know each other very well can spread behaviors, information and diseases through a dynamic called long ties.  This appears to hold up just fine with simple contagions that can be passed between two people with no other effort (like the flu), but not to hold up if the contagion being passed requires 2 or more people to reinforce it.  Think of it like being a carrier of a flu virus which requires you also to kiss someone else in 10 minutes to activate the infection.  If you catch the bug, but don’t kiss someone within the time limit, the bug dies out and there’s no spread.

Complex Contagion Bridge

For something like the Palo Alto pedestrian mall to come to life, there’s quite a lot of reinforcement that needs to happen, long ties are too weak in this case.  It’s a complex contagion that requires conversation, discussion, influence, and discernment.  In order for it to take hold, a person has to first “catch” the idea via one of the hundreds of people posting it on Facebook or a blog (long ties/small world) and then they have to discuss it with people they know well (strong/high bandwidth ties).

According to Damon, complex contagions operate under four social mechanisms:

1. Strategic complementarity (huh?)… that is, several complimentary factors in play at the same time. Like how technology and cost go together to support innovation.  Until costs come down, some technologies are not enough to create action.

2. Credibility… this is the “everybody’s doing it” influence factor at work.   Research by Chip and Dan Heath shows how hearing the same thing from multiple sources helps get something to “stick”.

3. Legitimacy… if close friends do something together, “innocent bystanders” feel more able to join in.

4. Emotional Contagion… ever feel the vibe of a big crowd and just go for it?  That’s this one.

So don’t just let Facebook do your work with a simple post.  You have to mix it up with people mano a mano, get some demonstrations going, and experience live interaction to get a real change to take place.

Learning to blog- my rookie season

Learning to blog seems like a perfect experiment to explore feedback and learning.  Most people agree that you have to make mistakes to learn, but it’s a lot easier to say than do!  So, here I am getting right out there with my disclosure that I really don’t know what to do or where to start!  Just that admission got me a referral to Jay Goldman, author of the Facebook Cookbook, who focuses on Social Media at Rypple.

I’ve heard already that one key to good blogging is being active in a community that cares about topics I care about.  Not to just send out my thoughts, but to react to others as well.  Frankly, I’m concerned about what to say on someone else’s blog.  Should I act like I would in a face-to-face conversation?  I don’t want to leave a random comment, like “nice post!” (not helpful) or be too argumentative like, “that’s so wrong!” (too aggressive).

One of the best things I heard from Jay was about not being too self serving with comments like, “I agree, check out my post at”  He said, imagine yourself walking into a party and yelling out to everyone, “Here’s my phone number give me a call!”  You would actually move into a room, check out a few conversations and gradually offer an opinion or ask a question.” (DUH!) but really helpful.  Blogging seems like a “pay it forward” world, where helping others clarify things, helps you clarify things.

So I’m not so intimidated today.  Join me back here on this theme as I learn new things and try them out.  And feel free to share some of your best blog tips so we can all learn together.

Pondering feedback, goals, and transparency

27258052_3e374c654e_mEver notice how just knowing something is real can change your behavior?  Like when you look in a mirror and notice a piece of food from lunch stuck in your teeth?  Or you’re cruisin’ down the highway only to glance at the speedometer and notice you are going 20 MPH over the speed limit?  Most people react suddenly in these cases and make adjustments.

I find this is especially true when two other conditions are present: a clear goal which helps you know what feedback to value, and transparency of this goal (and progress toward it), which helps others help you maintain your commitment and keep you honest.

I just had a great chat with a new friend, Kate Niederhoffer, about how to put metrics in the hands of people inside organizations, along the lines of how biofeedback helps people make good health care decisions. Like how Cardionet puts a device in your chest that tracks and reports information about your heart so you can act BEFORE a big problem and get medical intervention to keep you in good shape.  For a deeper read on metrics in social systems check out Kate’s blog, social abacus.

So how can we use these ideas to help people in organizations get information early enough to act in ways that keep things in line?  So much of what is happening is subjective and hard to capture, but the more clearly we state our goals, and tap into people around us, the easier it is to recognize patterns and adjust our behaviors.

One company that is on to this issue in a big way is Rypple.  They’ve built a web-based feedback platform that can help you ask questions and aggregate input.  Then you can discuss that input with a few advisors and make adjustments in your behavior.  This is just the tip of the iceberg and I expect they will have many more cool features to make this process even easier. What if Facebook or Twitter provided more aggregation tools based on all of the input you gather from your friends and followers?  How would this change your behavior?

One more thought: organizations are so complex, how can we help people gather feedback from many streams and see patterns in easy to understand images (like your teeth in the mirror)?  Check out We Feel Fine for some inspirational ideas.