Discontinuous improvement

Continuous improvement isn’t nearly as important as discontinuous improvement. Creativity is a discontinuity. A creative act breaks with the chain that has come before it. It’s not continuous. One cannot become a leader by continuously improving. That’s imitation of the leader. You never overcome a leader by imitating them and improving slightly. You only become a leader by leapfrogging those who are ahead of you. And that comes about through creativity.

If Russ Ackoff had given a TED Talk…

Extrinsic vs intrinsic motivation

The problem with making an extrinsic reward the only destination that matters is that some people will take the quickest route there, even if it means taking the low road.

Indeed, most of the scandals and misbehaviors that have seemed endemic to modern life involve shortcuts. Executives game their quarterly earnings so they can game their performance bonus. Secondary school counselors doctor student transcripts so their seniors can get into college. Athletes inject themselves with steroids to post better numbers and trigger lucrative performance bonuses.

Contrast that approach with the behavior triggered by intrinsic motivation. When the reward is the activity itself—deepening learning, delighting customers, doing one’s best—there are no shortcuts. The only route to the destination is the high road. In some sense, it’s impossible to act unethically because the person who’s disadvantaged isn’t a competitor but yourself.

I’ve written about Daniel Pink’s work on motivation on this blog before. I read Drive a few months ago, but have found myself thinking about it ever since.

What strikes me most about it now, is the similarity between Dan Pink’s description of intrinsic motivation and W. Timothy Gallwey’s description of the value in winning. In both cases, the external reward—whether it be money or winning a tennis match—recedes into the background. The important thing becomes a much longer term goal: continually improving at something you care about. The effort expended is hard but hardly feels like effort.

Working for an external reward only gets you so far; working to improve—and believing that you can improve—will take you as far as you’re willing to go.

Related posts

The value in winning

Winning is overcoming obstacles, but the value in winning is only as great as the value of the goal achieved.

I’ve finally gotten around to reading The Inner Game of Tennis after having it recommended to me by a number of people whose opinions I respect.

There’s a lot I like about the book, and a lot I think I can apply to both my running, my work and my life. The ninth chapter, The Meaning of Competition, was the highlight for me. As someone who—in my teens and early twenties—was convinced that competition was a bad thing, the chapter really resonated with me. I loved that Gallway argues that by focusing on the effort to win rather than on winning, competition becomes cooperation.

More than anything, though, I loved how he illustrates this by using surfing as an example.

The surfer waits for the big wave because he values the challenge it presents. Why? Because it is those very obstacles, the size and churning power of the wave, which draw from the surfer his greatest effort. It is only against the big waves that he is required to use all his skill, all his courage and concentration to overcome; only then can he realize the true limits of his capacities.

Wonderful complexities

I feel as a person the most alive and human and full of wonder when I am contemplating complexities. The ability of humans to read meaning into patterns is the most defining characteristic we have.

Eleanor Catton has won the Booker Prize. I haven’t read The Luminaries yet, but I’m more excited about it than I have been by any Booker-winning book in a while. 

This is from an interview with the Guardian.

I’m posting it as a reminder. As a product manager and a UX designer, I spend much of my time battling complexity, trying to make things simpler and easier to use.

This is usually the right thing to. It’s all too easy to forget, though, that human beings are engaged and often thrilled by complexity. We seek out patterns and we love a challenge. It’s about context, though. In a book, complexity can turn a simple story into a novel that you think about and discuss for days, weeks even years after you’ve read it. In a game, complexity can make you want to play again and again.

If you’re simply trying to accomplish a task, complexity becomes a frustration. It depends on context.

It also depends on the individual. A novel that one persons loves for it’s many layers is a novel that another person loathes because it is a disorganized mess pretending to be literature.


MARISSA MAYER:  There’s goal setting, we’ve also done things like quarterly calibration.  But, one of the things, it sounds funny, but when I first got there everyone said to me there’s 1,000 things you need to fix.  And it’s really overwhelming when people come up and say that to you, because you’re like, how am I going to fix 1,000 things?  And so we came up with this idea, we have a moderator tool where people can vote on things.  And we came up with it, we were like, well, there’s process in the way, there’s bureaucracy in the way, there’s just kind of stuff jamming up the system.  And people would come to us and say I know the answer.  I know the solution.  I just need someone to tell me it’s okay to do it.  And we’d be like, by all means, it’s okay.  Please do it.  And we said how can we harness that energy. And we came up with this process called PB&J, process bureaucracy and jams, where you can go and you can write up something that’s just getting in the way in the company.  It could be big like my laptop is woefully underpowered for the job that I’m being asked to do, because we end up refreshing everyone’s laptops and getting all new equipment in that way, or it could be small.  It could be like why does the gym ask us to have orientation when every hotel in the world just lets you go and stand on a treadmill without a learning session.  And so people started doing this and then other people come and vote on it.  And if something gets more than 50 yes votes we sit down with a number of E staff, executive staff, that it would be the person who oversees it, and they clean out their PB&J on a quarterly basis that has more than 50 votes. And PB&J just turned a year old in September.  It’s been completely embraced by the culture, because people just love reporting these things that were kind of in the way and kind of annoying.  And this notion that if you report it and it gets enough votes it’s going to get fixed, it’s going to get addressed really empowers people.  They finished 1,000 things in the first year.  And I joked, I told this joke at our all-team on Friday.  I said it’s so funny, because all of you came up to me and said, there’s 1,000 things to fix.  And the truth is, there are thousands of things to fix.  We’re not done.  But, I was like, wow, they fixed 1,000 things in the first year, some big, some small, but it’s really, really amazing.

PATTIE SELLERS:  And how are people held accountable for fixing those things that get more than 50 votes?

MARISSA MAYER:  Because one is there, so everyone can see, hey, this is on the top of you PB&J list.  There’s this real transparency, there’s real public accountability for it.  But, the other thing is we have a small team of five or six people that work on PB&J and so they go and meet with the teams.  But, those five or six people can’t do 1,000 things.  The real testimony and the real learning lesson here is that by empowering people in the company to fix what they knew was broken, they were like, oh, are we fixing things, are we changing things, because I’ve got some stuff I want to fix. I’ve got some stuff I want to change. They really grabbed the opportunity.

This was the final thing that struck me while I was reading Marissa Mayer’s MPW interview. There’s a lot I like about the PB&J program at Yahoo!

I like that people have an outlet to vent their frustrations and suggest solutions. I like that people can vote on the suggestions of other people. I like that there is a commitment to fixing the problems that have been identified, and that there are people within the company who are given the power to do this.

I’d love to know what kinds of processes, bureaucracy and jams were identified and how they were fixed.

Se hace camino al andar

Caminante, son tus huellas
el camino y nada más;
Caminante, no hay camino,
se hace camino al andar.
Al andar se hace el camino,
y al volver la vista atrás
se ve la senda que nunca
se ha de volver a pisar.
Caminante no hay camino
sino estelas en la mar.

Translated into English:

Wanderer, your footsteps are
the road, and nothing more;
wanderer, there is no road,
the road is made by walking.
By walking one makes the road,
and upon glancing back
one sees the path
that will never be trod again.
Wanderer, there is no road—
Only wakes upon the sea.

I stumbled on the phrase se hace camino al andar while reading The End of Illth. I tracked down the poem by Antonio Machado. It took my breath away.

“We make the road by walking.”