- “All models are wrong, but some of them are useful.” – George E.P. Box
May Day, May Day! Traditionally a day of calling to arms for the struggles of the workers. And if the army of white collar working class needed a revolutionary subversive from the top of the parapets, Ogilvy’s Rory Sutherland would fit the bill. His presentation “It’s a Science Just Not This Kind of Science” (thanks Matt) showcases his rabble-rousing style challenging all sorts of authorities from experts to executives. But he has a particularly sharp blade for that very particular patrician class of the business world – the marketeer.
Sutherland exaggerates colourfully to make his points and sometimes his hyperbole stretches a bit too far. While I applaud his core message of avoiding getting seduced by “science”, his lambastes into its shortcomings are a bit OTT in my view. The early part of his talk veers dangerously close to the classic plea for rampant unaccountability in the cult of the marketing witch doctors.
Oglivy bemoans spoiling all our fun with all of its predictability and repeatability. He points out high profile business successes like Branson who have fewer stakeholder burdens and do innovative (and fun) things. He does make some good points about be wary of disciplines masquerading science. Much of the so-called “science” applied to marketing isn’t really “science” at all, but really just a label to make studies like “social science” have more gravitas. He asserts, with reasonable grounds, that science isn’t applicable to the marketeer’s world of behavior change. But such ripostes are not really “anti-science”, just anti-faux –science.
Part of his argument hinges on the distinction between “perception” and “reality”. He articulately argues (as a marketer might) the power of perception over reality. “Mathematics” are more the useful tool for ‘reality’, but they have less reliable application in the area of ‘perception’ (citing a number of the perception biases studies by Kahnemann). In this context, Oglivy echoes many points I make in my “business is not a coin-operated spreadsheet” coining the colourful if ever so indelicate term for over-dependence on such mathematical analyses in business – “measurbation”.
Over the course of the talk he does temper his assertions a bit. He says that it is not so much the “mathematics” that are to blame for “insanity” as the “dependence” on them. One result of his perspective is that it embraces failure very thoroughly. It shuns the “right answer” rigour of science and maths for a more flexible and indefinite failure embracing approach of the arts…
- “Dare to be trivial. Ideas like the ‘choc-ice’ effect are hugely beneficial, but are not valued because they are not seen to be ‘strategic’…Dependence on mathematics leads to kind of insanity”
Hugh MacLeod riffs on this same topic (and same quote) in his assessment of business plan myopia…
- “Your plan may look great, but the parts you are certain about may turn out to fail and the parts that you were not at all sure about, may be the most successful. The model for any business is undoubtedly imperfect. But there are certainly elements useful for figuring out next steps to grow and build something bigger and better. This one is a lesson in keeping your eyes open for what you can learn from other businesses – whether they are successes or failures.”
“We grow up being told to ‘try harder’, ‘be better’, etc., etc., etc. Sometimes we just need to "let go". – Hugh MacLeod
Letting go works both ways. Not only can people and organisations let go of the outlying disaffected, but the disaffected can let go of the organisations and people.
“The things that make me different are the things that make me.” – Winnie the Pooh
The journey is not all smooth riding. And perhaps the bumpiest, hardest, roughest rides are the best.
- “It occurs to me that most of my oldest friends and myself (and a lot of my readers) chose a harder path than we could have gotten away with. It was tough at first, but it seems that it eventually paid off, or for some, likely to do so in the future. Even though we had no guarantees, we knew what we were doing when we made out choice. And so we went with it. And I’m glad we did.” – Hugh MacLeod
- “By doing something really hard for each other, we will demonstrate what is best about humanity. And that will inspire us to be more ambitious about what is possible in all our endeavors.” – Bill Gate’s Dimbleby Lecture
- “The shortcut that’s sure to work, every time: Take the long way. Do the hard work, consistently and with generosity and transparency. And then you won’t waste time doing it over.” – Seth Godin,
- “The Certain Shortcut”
- “Today, though, it’s the difficult work that’s worth doing. It’s worth doing because difficult work allows you to stand out, create value and become the one worth choosing. Seek out the difficult, because you can. Because it’s worth it.” – Seth Godin, The Hard Parts”
If Unitarianism is the ‘Church of Wrong’, then a few of my ‘thought leaders’ (see right side) could be prophets. Like Hugh MacLeod with his ecclesiastical view on wrongness (see above).
And of course Chet Raymo who penned a post on the subject titled "There are more ways of being wrong…”
- “There are lots of ways to be wrong, and fewer ways of being right. There are dozens of mutually contradictory religions, for example, but only one science. There is no conceivable way to falsify a supernatural truth system — such as a religion or Intelligent Design — since whatever is observed or not observed can be ascribed to the will of an inscrutable supernatural being. A scientific hypothesis can be falsified by finding a single reproducible counterexample. There is an irony here. Systems with no conceivable way of confirmation or falsification often claim immutable truth. The one system that holds its hypotheses to the fire of exact reproducible experience claims nothing more than reliability — and looks forward to refine me.”
- “We embrace ridiculous as the sign that maybe, just maybe, we’re being generous, daring, creative and silly. You know, remarkable.”
Seth Godin offers a fresh perspective on being a remarkable boss…try a bit of ridiculousness. His post “Ridiculous is the New Remarkable” is illustrated by Hugh MacLeod in both artwork and example…
- “It turns out that most of what we choose to talk about today is ridiculous. The dramatically overproduced music video. The business model that is so generous that we can’t imagine it succeeding. The painter who produces a new painting every single day…Hugh’s cartoons are ridiculous, of course, as is his promiscuous non-business business model. The audacity of caring too much, sharing too much and connecting too much…Ridiculous isn’t safe. If you do something ridiculous and you fail, people get to say, ‘you idiot, of course you failed, what you were doing was ridiculous.’ Which is precisely why it’s so rare. Not because we are unable to imagine being ridiculous, but because we’re afraid to be.”
- “So it comes down to knocking out some walls, and encouraging others to do the same. You’ve seen what this old method can do, so get it out of the way to let new ideas work some magic for a little while…Until, of course, it’s time to trash that for whatever is next.” – Hugh MacLeod
Dresses aren’t the only things to trash in the spirit of creativity according to the witty depicted wisdom of Gapingvoid. This ethos is essential to avoid the sclerotic rot of creeping bureaucracy.
I remember my time with the big company of Microsoft who, like many organisations, always had an annual employee survey. That wasn’t the only way to solicit feedback from staff. Another major one was 1:1s with your manager. This set up is like a viral mechanism for organisational metastasis where every round of feedback provided fresh fuel for new projects and administration.
The accreted processes and tasks just keep piling up. Someone suggests that coordination with another department is difficult and the next thing you know, a task force to examine interdepartmental cooperation is set up and coming up with even more things for people to do. More boxes to tick out of due diligence that no one really cares about. So what does one do to avoid this gravitational pull of complexity?…
- Just say no – One way to break this circle is for the Company/Manager to act on the feedback…by saying ‘no’. Embracing the failure of feedback. Just because it is given, doesn’t mean that it necessarily has to be institutionalised. It is okay, in fact it is more than okay, to decline to act on feedback. One must do this without being defensive or in denial. Reviewing the feedback thoroughly (so the giver knows it has been heard and actively considered) and then providing a thorough, cogent response shows as much respect as nodding politely and routinely implementing some ill-considered half-measure. In fact more. But not every good idea passes the threshold for a company-wide campaign.
- Seek clarification - Very often someone will provide vague feedback like ‘there’s not enough collaboration’. So the manager goes and sets up a ‘Collaboration Monthly Meeting’. When what the staff really wanted was teleconferencing software.
- Stop doing something – Per Hugh’s inspiration, for every new initiative to start doing, identify something to stop doing. Something out-dated, or of less impact than originally hoped.
Leaders start needed initiatives; Managers stop unneeded make-work.
“Joy and sorrow are like milk and cookies. That’s how well they go together.” – Neil Gaiman, ‘American Gods’
There are few writers who can span the genre breadth of Neil Gaiman from novels to comics, film scripts and more. His Commencement Address at the University of the Arts (thanks Chase) shares a few secrets of his creativity bounty…
- When you start out on a career in the arts you have no idea what you are doing. – This is great. People who know what they are doing know the rules, and know what is possible and impossible. You do not. And you should not. The rules on what is possible and impossible in the arts were made by people who had not tested the bounds of the possible by going beyond them. And you can. If you don’t know it’s impossible it’s easier to do. And because nobody’s done it before, they haven’t made up rules to stop anyone doing that again, yet.”
- If you have an idea of what you want to make, what you were put here to do, then just go and do that. – Sometimes the way to do what you hope to do will be clear cut, and sometimes it will be almost impossible to decide whether or not you are doing the correct thing, because you’ll have to balance your goals and hopes with feeding yourself, paying debts, finding work, settling for what you can get.
- When you start off, you have to deal with the problems of failure. – You need to be thick-skinned, to learn that not every project will survive. A freelance life, a life in the arts, is sometimes like putting messages in bottles, on a desert island, and hoping that someone will find one of your bottles and open it and read it, and put something in a bottle that will wash its way back to you: appreciation, or a commission, or money, or love. And you have to accept that you may put out a hundred things for every bottle that winds up coming back. The problems of failure are problems of discouragement, of hopelessness, of hunger.
- I hope you’ll make mistakes. If you’re making mistakes, it means you’re out there doing something. – If you’re making mistakes, it means you’re out there doing something. And the mistakes in themselves can be useful. I once misspelled Caroline, in a letter, transposing the A and the O, and I thought, “Coraline looks like a real name…”
- While you are at it, make your art. Do the stuff that only you can do.
- People get hired because, somehow, they get hired. – “People keep working, in a freelance world, and more and more of today’s world is freelance, because their work is good, and because they are easy to get along with, and because they deliver the work on time. And you don’t even need all three. Two out of three is fine. People will tolerate how unpleasant you are if your work is good and you deliver it on time. They’ll forgive the lateness of the work if it’s good, and if they like you. And you don’t have to be as good as the others if you’re on time and it’s always a pleasure to hear from you.”
The entire speech advocates the free embrace of failure. The first four points do so explicitly and the final two advocate an acceptance vagaries of success and failure. He echoes Hugh MacLeod’s pragmatic advice about ‘Sex and Cash’ which ethos the need for personal Leadership and Management of one’s life and work.
And he captures the lottery element behind so much of success with his priceless ‘message in a bottle’ metaphor. This is a problem I observe with jaded and seasoned salespeople. They are so caught up in the ‘qualification’ process, they are not (literally) floating new ideas and prospecting. For me, the number one indicator of a transformative salesperson is the number of unsolicited proposals that they they close. Unsolicited proposals are not cold calling (usually). Most often they are made to established relationships and customers. It is what separates the order-taking boys from the moving-and-shaking risk-taking men. To be successful, they need to be based on a sharp insight into customers problems and the ability to address them. An insight so keen that it really exceeds the customer’s own knowledge (or else the customer would have asked for the solution by tender).
- “Harley Swift Deer, a Native American teacher, says that each of us has a survival dance and a sacred dance, but the survival dance must come first. Our survival dance, a foundational component of self-reliance, is what we do for a living our way of supporting ourselves physically and economically. For most people, this means a paid job. For members of a religious community like a monastery, it means social or spiritual labors that contribute to the community’s well-being. For others, it means creating a home and raising children, finding a patron for one’s art, or living as a hunter or gatherer. Everybody has to have a survival dance. Finding and creating one is our first task upon leaving our parents’ or guardians’ home. Once you have your survival dance established, you can wander, inwardly and outwardly, searching for clues to your sacred dance, the work you were born to do. This work may have no relation to your job. Your sacred dance sparks your greatest fulfilment and extends your truest service to others. You know you’ve found it when there’s little else you’d rather be doing. Getting paid for it is superfluous. You would gladly pay others, if necessary, for the opportunity.” – Hugh MacLeod
One of the things we are most proud of as parents is that our two children, Isley and Chase, have embraced both the Sacred Dance (poetry/playwriting and sound composition) as well as the Survival Dance (financial self-sufficiency through day jobs as a life model and barista). What is also curious and coincidental, is that the dialogue in Hugh’s cartoon (see above) echoes one of the most heated debate our two children have on the subject of commercializing art. In the end, who cares? If you have your Survival Dance, you can choose to get paid or not for the Sacred one.
Leaders dance the sacred dance; Managers dance the survival dance.
- “There once was a world I used to know well, where the most likely way to be happy and successful was to play it safe, to fit in, to not rock the boat. To take up golf, Brooks Brothers and other genteel affectations. I’m not sure if this world still exists. I’m not sure if it ever did.”
Hugh MacLeod reminds us that heroism doesn’t just come in big, bold displays, but is just as readily embraced in small, daily gestures. Perhaps such a quest for ‘meaning’ is just as ‘crazy’ as the big acts, but Hugh simply turns that notion completely on its head as is his style…
- “Anything that has form can be overcome; anything that takes shape can be countered. This is why sages conceal their form in nothingness and let their minds soar in the void.” — Huaninanzi (2nd century BC)
The above quote from Huaninanzi reminded me of Hugh’s ‘Gapingvoid’ in the metaphor of ‘soaring into the void’. But there is also something about the imagery of embracing the failure through concealing one’s ‘form in nothingness’. Hugh’s methodical chaos in the artistic parts of his cartooning evoke a very Pollock-esque aesthetic without form and yet compelling and deliberate all the same.
Hugh has shared his sagacity on many subjects, but especially on embracing failure. Here is another gift from Hugh on the topic titled appropriately “Fail Often”…
- “I also love Esther Dyson’s great line, “Always make new mistakes” (she’s the well-known futurist and venture capitalist). In fact, I liked it so much that in 2008 I went ahead and made a drawing and gave it to her. Good times. It’s all about the same stuff: That our ability to succeed and to thrive is in direct proportion to our ability to make mistakes and learn from them. It ain’t rocket science, but it’s easily forgotten by some. Myself included. Ouch…”
Happy Birthday Hugh.