FailCon is a convergence of entrepreneurs who listen to and swap war stories about starting and enduring business failures.
As the day wore on I began to feel that the word "fail" was harsh and, in any case, not quite perfect. If we talk of business failures, I ask 'must we apply the same word to ourselves'? The word "defeat" came to mind. It's still brutal. It means something crashed, hit the ground, that someone or something else came out on top, and that recovery will require great fortitude. But for me defeat feels like 'down for this round', 'down for this game', 'down for this season'. Recoverable.
Several times in my life I've felt utterly defeated over a period of years. I've thought about what giving up means. If not death, then what? Living in a remote but low-pressure location isolated from failure or the shame of failure?
First off, bad things happen everywhere.
Then I thought: let's say I do that. Let's say it's the day after I've got myself ensconced in some near-wilderness. It's not like "they" won. "They" have no idea, and if they do, my responses will be forgotten soon. Plus, some people will then be deprived of whatever value I do bring to the world even if I think it's miniscule. But most importantly, what will I do that next day? Knowing me I'd start over, complete with strategies, because that's what I do. I can't help but survive and thrive. So that means I must put up with the current misery. Shit.
I rallied. I was defeated but I had not failed. I was not entirely the weak link in the cascade of events. In fact, to always write myself off as the cause disregards my fallible humanity and larger forces around me. This is why I deeply appreciate Scott Berkun reminding us of the Fallacy of a Single Failure.
And so I may be defeated today. I do a post-mortem about what I could have done, what I should have recognized, but also noting how I might have been blindsided or inexperienced. Then I repair what I can followed by working on putting such thoughts aside. On those days I give up for the day. I accomplish as much as my sore emotions allow, consult with my inner board of directors, and then take a break. A hike, a chat with friends, a new indie film. Tomorrow I layer on more effort. I learned to take care of myself.
In one of these periods of dismay a drunk friend of a professional acquaintance told me to my face that I should give up. This guy had no idea what he was suggesting. What did he think 'give up' meant? I was later instrumental in that professional acquaintance getting a good job. Over lunch (that he bought) I asked for, and received, an apology. Who's going to tell me I have no value and that I should give up?
"Failure is only failure if you don't get back up" Ben Huh, FailCon 2012. Sounds like a defeat to me.
Personally, I think that first bracing smack in the face is exhilarating. The first day or so afterwards is precious. Not that I enjoy injury but the sharper the pain the more vividly displayed are your incorrect knowledge and assumptions. Your market has just been corrected. The new reality is here. Savor the release. I spend those sparkly moments examining every super-charged facet and feel the effects, checking on how I'm responding. However...
"Be certain that you are not suffering over your suffering." (The Book of Runes, Ralph Blum, St. Martin's Press, 1982) I read this as saying 'Save your energy for the issues, including the facts of your trauma and the crisis at hand. Don't waste energy on melodrama, languishing in your misery.' Care for emotions as you go and then also when the crisis has subsided.
I counsel suffering friends to not shove the pain of these events aside, to stay in the moment. Anguish festers and compounds itself. This is an opportunity to grow, to accept responsibility for your own maturing, to become a better person for your own happiness and the well-being of others. Well, that's what I say anyway.
"When times are good, some of your character shows. When times are bad, all your character shows." This is a "Chinese" proverb I cannot re-locate since I first spotted it in a 1979 Farmer's Almanac. This one bon mot has been a guiding light through my adult life. Message: 'Behave yourself while you deal with your issues'. Similarly, it's also best to mind your character when times are extra good.
Chip Conley, CEO of Joie de Vivre spoke of being not superhuman but a super human, the chairman of emotion and meaning. A man after my very own heart. He spoke of Maslow (whose hierarchy of needs he simplified to 'survive, succeed, transform') and Frankl, two psychologists who profoundly influenced me.
Ben Blank's (Intuit's Innovation Catalysts team) said things about recovering from professional defeat and instilling sustainable practices that I believe and promote. I particularly soaked up these gems:
Masochists. Maybe even they dream of benevolent overlords. The right mix of providing what it takes to thrive and to challenge.
I’m reminded of Mary Poppins:
"Wanted: a nanny for two adorable children."
If you want this choice position, have a cheery disposition... Rosy cheeks, no warts... Play games, all sorts. You must be kind, you must be witty, very sweet, and fairly pretty...
Take us on outings, give us treats, sing songs, bring sweets. Never be cross or cruel. Never give us castor oil or gruel. Love us as a son and daughter, and never smell of barley water.
If you won't scold and dominate us, we will never give you cause to hate us... Hurry, nanny! Many thanks! Sincerely... Jane and Michael Banks!
What is the difference between a boss and a leader?
“A boss creates fear, a leader confidence. A boss fixes blame, a leader corrects mistakes. A boss knows all, a leader asks questions. A boss makes work drudgery, a leader makes it interesting.” - Russell H. Ewing (1885-1976) British journalist
Not everyone is hip to the concept, even now.
This really happened. Silicon Valley, 2012. A team offsite is announced. It’s the manager’s hobby; an individual sport like gymnastics. The team is not asked if they want to do this or maybe something else. The manager gets in a practice session while the team risks physical injury and social embarrassment. This manager is a boss. The kicker? The outing is paid for by the employees.
Daniel Pink in his book Drive points to three key factors in motivating cognitive workers (as opposed to physical workers) toward optimal performance: autonomy, mastery, & purpose. Intrinsic motivation. It’s like an organization being user centered.
My name is Susan, and I am a baby.
During his Ferris Bueller days Matthew Broderick did a skit on Saturday Night Live in which he dressed as a baby. Other passengers on the New York subway mocked him. I remember John Belushi. “Look at the BAY-bee!” he said. Mr. Broderick’s baby answers, “Well, yes I am a baby…”
Mr. Broderick has since revisited the theme: here he is, avec diapers and bonnet, with the much-missed Phil Hartman as a Fairy. As in a Tooth Fairy-like fairy.
Actually, Saturday Night Live makes a point more about social perceptions and diversity which I leave aside because humor is best left unexplained.
Besides, I’m serious here. I don’t mean to say I am an infant. Sure, I’m intelligent like an infant, but I have years of experience racked up that supplement wisdom I was gifted with. I possess a certain kind of analytical ability and persuasiveness. Yeah, sure, I’m not rich. Shut up.
I did not come to the realization that I am a baby on my own. I did know that I have a tender heart that requires some protection and nourishment. It was, however, a perceptive man of my acquaintance, someone whose father was an obstetrician and came from a family of eight siblings who gave my traits a persona. At first I recoiled, as though I had been called a bad name.
He gently asked me, “What do babies do?”
“They laugh, they cry, they play and learn by wandering away and putting stuff in their mouths. Also - sleep a lot, wipe food all over themselves, delight in a rubber duckie, and roll around on their bottoms.”
I immediately understood.
I want to be clear that this doesn’t mean I think less of myself. I am not a victim to be pitied. I am not socially or personally inferior. I simply recognize a facet of myself which helps me understand certain behaviors and thoughts.
Like babies, I do gutsy, sometimes even ill-advised things, like heading out to open territory without telling someone where I’m going. I grieve mightily when disappointed especially with myself, am betrayed by those I thought I could trust, or suffer a wounding loss. I also feel the pain of those who are hurt. Buffering helps.
I enjoy experiencing other realities – my imagination and natural curiosity lead to plenty of wonder. I enjoy getting “lost” and returning to my reality having been away. I require stimulation. Cooped up motionless in a small, dark, silent office cube = a coffin.
So why announce this in public? Why not jot these thoughts in my Moleskin?
Here’s why. Again and again startups are advised to have someone on board who expands the group’s creative thinking; a non-engineer, a non-MBA. Startups are told to expect things to be messy (read: inefficient), to involve all ideas, to expect unexpected outcomes, to ask the right questions and investigate, and to roll with the reality checks, to pivot and refine accordingly and rapidly.
Startups need Babies. Frankly, all companies need Babies.
Think of all the photos you have with people you don’t know in the background. Now imagine this - what if you could see all the photos others have taken that have you in the background. You when you’re not posing; just going about your life. What a story the collection would tell about your life. What are you wearing. Who are you with. What’s your common facial expression and posture. Do you remember when some of those photos must have been taken? It would be like seeing yourself in a documentary you're unaware of, literally through the lens of others.
One step further – to see photos of people you know well in the background of other people’s photos. You might learn things about them you couldn’t have imagined.
Maybe we’ll all get this chance to see ourselves au casual when online facial recognition is incorporated into search. Muy creepy but also enlightening.
As a student of human behavior it helps to be ultra-aware of oneself. So another idea occurred to me. In the user experience (UX) profession we have something called ‘personas’. These are characteristics and day-in-the-life stories that are rolled into an example person for the purposes of guiding product development and “user experiences”. These personas are given names, occupations, ages, education levels, experience and knowledge in certain areas, and specific behaviors and attitudes that have been observed in real life. In full disclosure, some have questioned the scientific validity of personas. Designers and others, though, consider them highly valuable even if they are flawed.
So imagine this – what if you could walk through a gallery of the personas that corporations think you fit into. For instance, due to recent disclosures I now know that Google thinks based on my search patterns that I am a 25-34 year old male. So in this gallery there would be a figure of this persona and a placard describing the persona’s traits. Google uses this persona to create products they think I would like. It’s actually not so important that these gallery personas accurately reflect who I am demographically – personas are about behaviors, interests, fears and desires. Again, how fascinating it would be to take in this collection of representations of who I am based on the trail of data I leave behind as I go about living my life.
What would I do with this information? Well, it would be like getting feedback, a way of capturing an unbiased data stream about myself. I might see disturbing things and hopeful things. Certainly here would be hints of how others might see me.
What if, in the future, corporations built androids with these persona traits and then observed them in daily life. That way, if the personas synch accurately to their human counterparts it would no longer be necessary to study actual humans for difficult or sensitive questions. So, say, these androids could be studied for research questions about sexuality or hygiene or mental health problems.
By now I’ve read the first chapter of Phil McKinney’s book “Beyond the Obvious: Killer Questions that Spark Game-Changing Innovation" online. I heard the podcast. There have been reviews. And now there’s been a Silicon Valley book tour interview at the Computer History Museum. This is his first book; Mr. McKinney’s thoughts after leaving HP.
The book is another essay pressing the message that to innovate businesses must dare to break out of their ruts. His prescription is to stop accepting common knowledge and preventing the boat from rocking. To allow the less conventional thinking its day in the sun.
So we’re hoping that the real news is in the execution. Riskiness is all well and good until rubber meets the road. Stakeholders, bonuses, and weekend homes are on the line.
And so it is: Phil McKinney suggests we ask Killer Questions. Questions that require thought and maybe a little digging (Daniel Kahnemann’s System 2). Specifically, we should ask: Who, What, and How.
Who are the customers? No actually – who are they really? Two nominally legitimate methods are outlined. But first, an ad hoc data collection story.
As a VP at HP Mr. McKinney became a regular “visitor” at Best Buy, quizzing new laptop owners about why they didn’t buy an HP. Once he learned about a buying pattern from the Geek Squad that he forwarded immediately to HP. Of course, actual research may or may not validate the cause -> effect observation, but everybody likes a good story.
Let’s be clear. It’s an executive privilege to get away with guerilla research inside a retail store. A UX researcher for HP would get the bum’s rush. Wouldn’t it be great to compile these data; to collaborate with the UX team. Except that, bottom line, this kind of off-the-cuff research is unethical and certainly unscientific. People should be informed that they are participating in research. Allowing such research makes Best Buy complicit in the research. It also interferes in the shopper’s overall experience. And it’s not systematic. Upshot: executives get a jolt from directly influencing product development. Shows that they know their own shop. But let’s not pretend that this is more than anecdotal inquiry that is useful to executives.
So what is legitimate inquiry? Phil McKinney does reverse engineering. Look at how things are and try to figure out how they got that way. And then think of even more ways things could have gotten this way – go beyond the obvious.
I do reverse engineering, too. We all sometimes skim through the New Yorker Magazine just reading the cartoons. Sometimes they’re immediately funny because the point is obvious and not very profound. Most of them also make a deeper socio-cultural comment. So it’s fun to figure out the cartoonist's original observation and then trace how the cartoonist arrived at this visual and verbal expression.
What’s cool is that in scientific method this is called “generating hypotheses”. The next step in considering possibilities is seeing if anyone else has tackled the question and derived potential explanations. Eventually one whittles down the list of hypotheses, arriving at a handful of better-educated guesses.
But wait - we're not done. Before leaping to solutions, how about some real life observation and testing of variables?
So reverse engineering is one person “brainstorming”. The other method Mr. McKinney touts is for team reverse engineering, generating educated guesses and solutions in a compressed time period. The classic brainstorming session. Timing is a little rough on this one considering recent raps against brainstorming here and here.
The key, he says, is to rank the final results for better implementation. That’s an idea for handing off actionable possibilities for executives to get behind. Finally a team is being given latitude to exercise their expertise.
The What question is something related to the product or service. This might be where product development or marketing considerations may come into play.
The How question pertains to organizational execution.
I’m glad Phil McKinney makes these points to his peers - the executive echelon. A stronger correlation from these ideas to UX research would be useful to the rest of us.
I'm switching from a Motorola Android OS phone to the iPhone 4S. I'm not as thrilled at the prospect as it seems most people are. I'm jamming my plug straight into one of the gazillion sockets of the Borg. For now, though, as a therapeutic exercise, I shall document my experience as I get this thing up and running.
It arrived about 18 hours ago. I took it out of the box and decided to plug it in, amp up the battery. It sprang to life and started me through a set-up wizard. I didn't have time for that right then.
So now I slapped on the bumper protector that I got talked into by Verizon. Then I put on the cover shield that I was persuaded to also get. It strikes me that if this thing was so well designed it would come out of the box ready to take the abuse of everyday life and smell like a rose. After all, what's the point of advertising a glorious design if it requires care, feeding, and armor? Plus, there's all the additional expense, more materials to manufacture, more things for young Chinese people to carefully make and place into the packaging. It runs counter to simplicity and reducing waste of all kinds.
Next, the set-up process. Frankly, that was pretty slick. Two immediate texts from Verizon - I'm all set. Still don't want to be a fan, though. Coming up: a couple years of buying apps. Manufacture and ownership of an iPhone is expansive.
Experience researcher in high tech, healthcare, and built environments with an anthropology provenance.