Tuesday, 5 September 2023

Thursday, 3 August 2023

Only Finding the Non-Obvious Matters

“The better you understand context, the more likely you will see how easily you can be missing out on it.”

Tyler Cowen, “Context is that which is scarce”

Magnus Neilsson‘s “Nordic Cookbook” is one of my favorite books, primarily for how it opens:

“If you follow the recipes to the dot as printed in the book, sometimes it’s not going to work anyhow…The way ingredients behave in one part of the world might not be the same as how they behave where you are, for natural reasons…Are you getting discouraged? Well don’t…Recipes are there to give you a base to start from, inspiration…and also to explain the technical base on which you can then build….You will have to use common sense.”

Tyler Kord’s “A Super Upsetting Book about Sandwiches” opens similarly,

“Being able to follow a recipe is like being able to read music, and you should feel free to make it your own a little, because nobody will mind if you like your broccoli a little more cooked than I do….”

And from Belinda Ellis’s Biscuits,

“A recipe can’t tell you exactly how much liquid to add because of the fat content of the milk, the amount of protein in the flour, even the weather can affect the moistness of the dough.”

At the beginning of summer, I walked into the neighborhood library and the librarian asked me why I had the recipe for bread on my shirt.

“I’ve committed to entering a loaf of bread into the Minnesota State Fair.”

Yes in fact, a few weeks earlier, I selected a recipe out of Ken Forkish’s Flour Water Salt Yeast to master and have been baking 2 loaves of bread every week since.

No, I haven’t been happy with any of them. Thank you for asking.

In an attempt to get happier, I switched yeast (somewhat better), then I switched flour (much worse), then I introduced a kitchen mixer (much much worse), then I switched flour again (somewhat better).

As much as Forkish’s recipe is far more sophisticated than my t-shirt – or the title of his own book – turns out it’s also a long way from the level of sophistication required for success with this flour, this yeast, in this oven, in my kitchen, in summer, at this altitude.

At beer club, if you’ve a question about anything in your most recent batch the first response you’ll get from the more experience members, “Did you bring your notes?”

So, like anyone screwing around doing science, I’m taking notes. I’m documenting what seems to work in each batch and documenting how I diverge, inadvertently or otherwise, from what the recipes states.

In the end, if I’m successful, I’ll have this one bread recipe adapted/developed, and if written out comprehensively for someone else (even future me), it will likely be >4 pages (it’s already 2 pages). Four pages is quite a bit longer than four words.

This massive discrepancy in length is obvious to anyone having developed a recipe – especially one targeting commercial food equipment at scale. Or anyone having built and refined anything from zero. There are a number of non-obvious details that are only a concern if the goal is: make it repeatable.

The Ninety-Ninety Rule aims to remind us there are always non-obvious details, context, and decisions that are only encountered once we’re in the middle of an effort.

“The first 90% of code accounts for the first 90% of development time, the remaining 10% accounts for the other 90% of development time.”

The Coastline Paradox reminds us of a similar phenomenon, if you were to carefully walk the entirety of any coastline, the distance walked will be longer than any measurement of the coastline. Which is to say, the complexity of a situation is far higher when you’re in the middle of it than when you’re an observer.

Years ago, Merlin Mann recorded (by my assessment) a classic NSFW rant entitled, Make Believe Help. In it, he drags all the internet publications trading in reframing common sense as the latest life hack. For contrast, Merlin evokes an Old Butcher – an expert in the small details gained through hundreds, thousands, of repetitions.

These reps matter.

Making the same cut over and over. Each time doing it wrong in a different way, in a different spot. Then again. And again. And again.

An active practice.

Reps are only thing that will develop skills beyond what fits on a t-shirt.

Everything that’s not real world reps lacks necessary context, the necessary details, the appreciation for how all the factors fit into place. All the factors, not just the obvious ones.

Accelerating skill development requires creating an environment for the reps, for the practice, including a post-rep assessment;

  • Was the target achieved?
  • What went well?
  • What didn’t?
  • What was different this time?
  • What do we want to deliberately focus on in the next rep?

Any individual instance matters less than the accumulation of all the instances. There will always be another instance.

All of this is well within the Double-Loop model of learning, which is self-aware:

“Double-loop recognises that the way a problem is defined and solved can be a source of the problem.”

Of course, this is why we have coaches, advisors, structured classes, and multi-year specialized educational programs – all to accelerate the acquisition of greater context for a price. To help us get better at defining the problem accurately.

In my work with startups, I’m continually listening for hints of such an environment an real world reps – whether dogfooding or helping a customer solve a problem today. This is usually evident in if, and how casually, they talk about details and problems non-obvious to an external observer. A surprisingly small number have. Some resist even the mere suggestion. I get it. Real world reps can smell like low-value work that doesn’t scale, especially when your end goal is to abstract and automate away the pesky details. But here is where real competitive advantages lay, not to mention early revenue.

Admittedly, as this story of the Vienna Beef company reminds us, we can be successful for a very long time without fully understanding our own non-obvious details.

No, at this moment, I have no evidence this particular recipe would even do well in the Minnesota State Fair. Yet, I’ve committed to this recipe because it looked interesting, delicious, and slightly challenging. All of which could be part of my problem.

How many more reps can I get in before the drop off date?

“…The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds;who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls…”

– Theodore Roosevelt, “The Man in the Arena“.

Tuesday, 25 July 2023

GWAR’s Tiny Desk Concert

Forty years after their creation GWAR played an NPR Tiny Desk Concert.

If you need a reminder to really, intensely, focus on who you are and what you want to contribute to the world, no matter how seemingly weird and tasteless it may seem to others – this is that reminder.

Thursday, 8 June 2023

Making Time

(or On the Founder-Idea Obsession)

There have been a handful of times, less than 20 across my entire life, where I’ve been obsessed with an idea. Yes, unhealthily obsessed. So obsessed I have temporarily neglected other obligations including my own health. Obsessed where I steal every possible moment to slip into the obsession. I’ve regularly postponed client work to practice my kubb game and regularly stayed up until 2am debugging handwritten XML for a new podcast episode. I’m never shy about them. To a great degree this blog is a timeline of so many of these obsessions. It’s highly likely if you’ve known me for any amount of time – you could accurately list off a handful of those 20.

At the beginning, all business founders have one foot in the new world of unknown promise and one foot in the old world (e.g. day job). It’s an uncomfortable, unsustainable tension.

The pull of the known and the comfortable in the old world is persistent. The fear of doing a poor job and disappointing those around you may even begin to haunt you.

The new thing, surprisingly doesn’t care if you work on it or not. No one else is there to hold you accountable for making progress. Nor should they, it’s not their job.

Now, factor in The Resistance and the easiest answer is to just not work on the new thing.

And so many potential founders don’t.

This is why, in my work with startup founders, I listen for obsession. I listen for how obsessed they are with their idea, how obsessed they are with their new world, how uncontainable their enthusiasm for it is. I listen for how they’ve stolen moments throughout the day to make just one tiny bit of progress.

And I compare that against how many times they say, “I couldn’t find the time.”

Founders and early stage business ideas are not a fungible combination.

On day zero, the founder is implicitly making a decade-long commitment (if the business is wildly successful). To persist through this commitment, progress needs to come from deep inside their bones, needs to illuminate them from the inside. This light needs to seep through every crack of their being and their calendar.

Or our work together will be helping them find a different idea.

Or they remain in the old world.

Friday, 26 May 2023

Are They a Customer?

In my work with entrepreneurs, it’s not unusual to spend a substantial amount of time discussing who the customer for the product in question. 

Yes, spending so much time on such a foundational question may seem a bit silly. 

It’s only an indication of how limited our day-to-day transaction experience is relative to the richness of niche business models in existence. 

It’s worth being explicit about who is and, more importantly, who is not a customer. 

Who is not a Customer?

  • Likes are not customers
  • Follows are not customers
  • Users are not customers
  • Stars are not customers
  • Personas are not customers
  • Downloads are not customers
  • Awards are not customers
  • AI are not customers
  • Algorithms are not customers
  • Best of Lists are not customers
  • Conferences are not customers
  • Suppliers are not customers
  • Demographics are not customers
  • Psychographics are not customers 
  • If they say, “I would buy it if…” they are not a customer (thx to CG for this one)

Who is a Customer?

  • The individual person paying you to help them

Thursday, 11 May 2023

Media Tetrad: Generative AI

While generative AI (ChatGPT, etc) is red hot right now, and I’ve been rather cool on it. All of my experiments with it have resulted in rather ‘meh’, uninteresting, completely predictable outcomes.

Maybe I’m missing something.

Which takes me to one of my favorite tools for thinking through effects and consequences comprehensively, McLuhan’s Tetrad. While McLuhan developed the Tetrad tool to think through how media changes us, I’ve found it works for anything phenomenon impacting society at large.

The Tetrad asks four questions;

  • What does it enhance/amplify/intensify?
  • What does it make obsolete?
  • What does it retrieve that had been obsolesced earlier?
  • What does it flip into when pushed to extremes?

(Note: this list will likely be continually updated as my understanding evolves)

What does Generative AI enhance?

  • Distribution of conventional wisdom (including all the implicit biases therein)
  • Near real-time machine-generated translation, especially English-to-English translations like BoringReport.org
  • In-the-moment individualized learning of well understood concepts, including both programming like GitHub CoPilot or asking ChatGPT to replace Dr. Google in a telehealth context
  • Automated customer service / support / repair
  • Quality of interactions with Siri/Alexa/Google
  • Output velocity of fan fiction authors, self-publishers, vanity publishers, spam farms, content farms, junk texts.
  • the minimum level of writing quality expected by the general population
  • Out of office replies
  • Role playing games with or without the AI as the DM
  • Writing that is distinctly, unquestionably human
  • the value of fact checkers
  • the quality of NPCs

What does Generative AI make obsolete?

  • Generative AI
  • text-based news outlets, blogs, and social media
  • essay writing
  • CliffNotes
  • Instruction manuels
  • Test prep books
  • Paying human writers by the word
  • Lorem ipsum and other placeholder text
  • search engine optimization
  • Amazon’s Mechanical Turk
  • Press releases
  • CorpSpeak
  • Memes

What does Generative AI retrieve?

  • Handwriting
  • Paper towns, canary traps
  • Clippy
  • Ask Jeeves
  • text-based video games
  • oral traditions
  • pamphleteering
  • Pop Art
  • Luddites
  • Secretaries / administrative assistants
  • The dead (or at least those that have left a sufficient volume of writings behind)
  • The unpolished, clunky, sincere, and completely human, amateur web

What does Generative AI flip into when taken to the extremes?

After compiling all these, it still seems neutral to net negative. Maybe a net positive on the customer service side. I can see the technology providing a richer experience to those things that currently have an ‘algorithm’ or any kind of robust template, but current applications seems like a way to generate low quality, filler content even faster than we can today.

To that point, for comparison, for full disclosure, and for the smug superiority that the human generated one above is much more satisfying, here’s ChatGPT’s Generative AI media tetrad:

What does it enhance or amplify?
Generative AI enhances our ability to create new and original content using machine learning algorithms. It can generate everything from music to art to text.

What does it obsolesce or push aside?
Generative AI may obsolesce the need for human creativity in some areas, as machines become better and better at creating content that is indistinguishable from that produced by humans. It may also push aside traditional methods of content creation, such as manual design or composition.

What does it retrieve that was previously obsolesced?
Generative AI retrieves the ability to create and innovate at scale, something that was previously limited by the time and resources required for manual content creation. It also retrieves the ability to work with vast amounts of data and patterns that are difficult for humans to perceive.
What does it reverse into if pushed too far?

If generative AI is pushed too far, it may reverse into a situation where human creativity and innovation are devalued, and machines become the sole creators of content. This could have negative implications for society, such as job displacement and loss of cultural diversity. It may also lead to a loss of control over the content produced by these machines, as their decisions become increasingly opaque to humans.

Thursday, 9 March 2023

Product is a trailing indicator of demand.  

Marketing is a leading indicator of demand.  

In between is art. 

Saturday, 7 January 2023


I’ve always enjoyed the environment message within ‘Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs’ it’s like a kid-friendly version of Harrison Ford is the Ocean.

Nature can reclaim the earth. The world will continue on without us.

It’s happened before:

  • Singapore, Michigan (swallowed up by sand dunes)
  • Casabre, Bolivia (swallowed up by the Amazon rainforest)
  • Zaiku, Iraq (swallowed up by the Tigris river)
  • Doggerland (swallowed up by the North Sea) this is my personal favorite as I’m continually delighted imagining walking from England to Norway.

Friday, 8 April 2022

Staying On Track 2022

  1. Every Commitment is in the Calendar.
    For personal and family commitments, I use Apple Calendar. I’ve set up calendars for each person in the house w/ a phone (currently 4 people) + an overall ‘Family’ calendar. All these calendars sync across (at least) nine devices in hopes an up-to-date calendar will always be right at hand. Every commitment – whether with to yourself, or others – goes in the calendar. A sampling:
  • take down Christmas lights (repeating annually)
  • install Christmas lights (repeating annually)
  • Monthly Goal Review (monthly)
  • take out the garbage (weekly)
  • Weekly (P)Review (weekly)
  • each run of my marathon training plan (daily)
  • the next logical, atomic, step for each active project (e.g. Grade Beer 4 of my current BJCP Tasting Exam step, start pizza dough, make yeast starter for saison, the ‘Now’ across the Trello boards)
  • and the usual smattering of kids’ instrument lessons, sporting activities, and social commitments.
  1. “I would be thrilled if…” in Apple Reminders
    In addition to shared shopping lists (Groceries, Costco, etc) in Apple Reminders, I’ve recently moved all of my Goals and Aspirations into a series of nested lists in Apple Reminders. The different timeframes help me maintain focus because I know the other stuff is coming up next month, next year, etc.

Yes, I frequently move stuff between the lists. Often kicking a given item from month to month to month. No worries, it’s the ‘I would be thrilled if…’ list not the ‘I must list’.

Here’s how it’s currently structured:

  • Backlog (default)
  • “I would be thrilled if…”
    • (the current month) in April 2022
    • (the upcoming month) in May 2022
    • in 2022
    • in 2023
    • Before I’m 50
    • Someday Maybe
  • My Life was Unsuccessful Because I Didn’t…
  • Waiting for: (Stuff on hold until a pre-requisite is fulfilled)
  1. Tactical Backlogs in Trello
    For big, complex, ongoing projects (e.g. family vacations, new applications I’m building) I create a project-specific Kanban board in Trello to breakdown the aspirational outcome (#2) into bite-size tasks for the calendar (#1). Each Kanban board has the following four columns:
  • Backlog (all the things)
  • Next (3-5 of the most significant, riskiest assumption things)
  • Now (the most significant, riskiest assumption thing – this is likely in my calendar)
  • Completed
  1. Weekly (P)Review
    Every Sunday afternoon, I grab a pen, a notebook, and two devices. I scan the past week’s calendar looking for key accomplishments and highlights for the family Jar of Awesome, and I preview the next week. Looking for key commitments in need of additional preparation, resolve potential conflicts (e.g. my running schedule w/ early work meetings), then once the core calendar is in place, I scan through all the Reminder lists, and Trello boards looking for things to fill out upcoming week’s capacity. This takes 45-90min.
  1. Monthly Goal Review
    Additionally, the first of each month, I take 30-60 minutes and review all the aspirations in the Reminders lists. For each one of them I ask the following:
  • Am I making progress on them?
  • Do they still resonate strongly?
  • Are they currently in the right time horizon?
  • Are there things that should be removed or added?

Thursday, 2 September 2021

Don’t Reschedule; Commit or Cancel

The world doesn’t actually care if you do the things on your calendar.

It’ll keep spinning either way.

In fact, in many ways it would prefer that you just didn’t.

For, every time you do – the world changes a little bit. ‘Doing’ starts an chain reaction of cause and effect unsettling the natural course of things – entropy.

There are consequences to inaction. If you don’t pay your rent or mortgage for long enough – eventually you’ll lose the roof over your head. Stop improving the relationship with your spouse and eventually you won’t have one. Stop filling up the gas tank in your car – and eventually you’re stuck.

These are hyperbolic examples, yet their lesson can be applied to both smaller more banal tasks as well as your most meaningful projects.

If you don’t work on them – there’s very little immediate downside. Long-term? That’s a completely different question. But, short term – likely nothing.

Right now, admit to yourself that there will be commitments you made, commitments that are clearly identified, well estimated, perfectly aligned with your energy that you simply don’t do.

Instead, you end up running errands, talking with co-workers, taking an extra-long shower, cleaning your office, resolving some completely unexpected emergency, or attempting to capturing some unexpected opportunity. Or you’re simply binge-watching ‘Nailed It’ on Netflix.

So, what do we do now that we we’ve admitted we’re not doing the thing we committed to?

First stop and take a breath.

Next consider why you didn’t.

What about the activity wasn’t compelling to you enough to simply start at the designated time? Most likely, it was an activity you weren’t fully committed to, that you didn’t fully see the outcome of the activity fulfilling one of your most meaningful goals.

In short, it’s a commitment you made for someone else – not for yourself. And because it wasn’t for you – anything, absolutely anything was more fulfilling and more significant than this thing you scheduled.

So, why did it end up on your calendar in the first place? At what point in the history of the commitment could you have made a different answer – said ‘No’ instead of ‘Yes’, delegated it, resolved it in the moment – to prevent it from ever being scheduled in the first place?

Think of that moment, visualize it like it’s happening again. Feel yourself agreeing to the commitment. As you do, ask, “What negative outcome am I trying to avoid by saying ‘Yes’?” followed by “What part of my identity is afraid of this activity?” (For it’s your identity that kept you from starting in this moment).

Once you have these answers, you’ll know which of the following actions to take:

1. Delete the activity off your calendar and completely forget about it. That’s right, you’re obviously not excited about this activity enough to start – so, say ‘No’ to it now and forever. Just delete it, write in what you did instead – and continue on with your day. If it likely will return, take a moment and determine who you’ll delegate it to. This is ‘When as a trigger’ that Patrick and I talk about in ‘The Power of When’ – When this task returns – I’ll delegate it to John.

  1. Reschedule it. If upon revisiting the significance behind the task and your reasons for not starting it this time you realize that this is still of value, your punishment is to reschedule it. This punishment is felt three ways; going through the next two weeks and finding a spot for this activity you didn’t do the first time, re-evaluating and rescheduling all the other commitments in its way, and running the risk of blowing it off a second time.
  2. Do it with whatever amount of time remains.Yea, rescheduling it is a horrible option – you’re moving a bunch of other commitments around to squeeze in one you obviously don’t want to do in the first place. So, rather than have Future You pissed at you (again!) take this time, whatever remains, and crank it out. Complete as much of it as you can, knowing that this is all the time you have, whatever value you can create in the next 14 minutes – that’s what this commitment gets. This stress, urgency, panic, is the price you paid for committing to something you shouldn’t have. Wherever you land when time is up that’s where you land. If by some miracle you complete it – you are not the hero. You are the villain – you took a commitment you shouldn’t have, you added greater stress to your life, and you crowded out something else that far more meaningful and significant, while delivering a low quality outcome.

Pick one.

Rescheduling the commitment is the worst of three options.

The easiest option is to simply admit the commitment wasn’t actually significant in the first place and delete it from your calendar.

“Rescheduling kicks off a chain reaction of comparing all the upcoming commitments by their significance, energy, and time to find the next best date & time for a commitment that obviously wasn’t the most significant thing when it came around the first time.”

Which means the rescheduled thing is never the most important thing. Why would it be? To add to the problem, the commitment has already been canceled, forgotten, or ignored once, so the chances of it being canceled, forgotten, or ignored a second time are more than double. Then there’s the issue of ensuring everyone has the new meeting details.

Don’t reschedule without adjusting the nature of the appointment to be aligned with the level significance for everyone involved.

This can be done two ways:

  • increasing the significance (stronger positive outcomes, greater risk minimization) of the effort
  • decreasing the resolution of the meeting. For example, if the initial meeting was a 60 minute face-to-face, propose a 20-minute phone call. If it was a phone call, propose addressing the entire issue via email, or suggest request an introduction to someone in a better position to fulfill this commitment.

Both of these methods of changing the effort’s nature transform it into a new substantially different thing. So it’s not a reschedule – it’s a more accurately-sized commitment that can be better judged against the rest of your scheduled commitments in terms of significance, energy, and time.

Of course, this assumes the change in nature still passes the significance threshold for you and your collaborators. It could be that you’re secretly relieved the effort isn’t important. In which case – delete it happily and ignore the reschedule request and determine how you’re going to maximize this newly found time.

All of this leads us back to where we started: Don’t Reschedule; Cancel or Commit