In data we (don’t) trust

There’s a growing legion of companies and product teams that aspire to call themselves “data driven.” When they make decisions, they tell tales of how Google tested 40 shades of blue and eliminated the need for intuition and gut-based decision making.

But, as data might suggest, extreme beliefs in any approach are problematic and a belief in data driven decisions is no exception.

For the data to point the way, we need suitable problems, the right inputs and tracking based on good questions and thoughtful hypotheses, reliable data pipelines, good analytical judgment in overlooking outliers and picking a robust methodology, and versatility in the tools to analyze and interpret the outputs. Every once a while, all of these align and it all just works.

But, for the most part, we’re better off marrying a desire for data with a healthy skepticism for what it is telling us. It is that skepticism that will ensure we keep pushing for the right questions and iterate our way into insights that get us closer to the truth.

Better to be data informed than data driven.

Don’t seek great mentors, seek great influences

Mentorship is a luxury. A great mentor relationship requires many favorable conditions – chemistry, good timing, and proximity among them. And, yes, when it works, it can have a magical effect on the learning curves of both the mentor and the mentee. But, so much of finding that great mentor relationship is outside our control that it is a reactive approach to learning at best, and lazy at worst.

Great influences, on the other hand, are all around us. We have more access to admirable folks than ever before. The life, work, and thought processes of luminaries like Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, and Marcus Aurelius are just a book away. That person you admire likely has a blog, a book, or an active twitter account. If we are the average of the five folks we spend our time with, it is easier than ever to be exceptional by simply letting ourselves being influenced by the wisest minds in human history.

The best part about great influences don’t have to be famous people. Your inspirational co-worker or parent can do the job as well.

We can, of course, wait for that great, uber successful, mentor to pick us and continue to let ourselves off the hook until they do.

Or, we can go seek great influences, learn from them, and keep plugging away.

Our choice.

What policy led to this bad outcome?

Julia Galef, a writer on rationality, had a great spin on how we can better separate processes and outcomes and pick where we want to maximize. When things go wrong, she asks herself – “What policy am I following that produced this bad outcome?”

For example, she shares a policy example wherein you always arrive 1 hour 20 minutes before a flight. However, this policy may result in you missing the occasional flight due to an accident on the road. But, if you over react to the bad outcome and change policy to be at the airport 2 hours earlier, as a frequent flier, you’re going to be spend hundreds of hours waiting at airports.

Similarly, I could spend 2x the time before sending every email to ensure there isn’t any typo or mistake. But, that would be a very expensive policy that would eat in to other productive time. So, it is best I assume that there will be mistakes and repeat sends that fix them from time to time.

There are a few places in life where we need a 100% success rate. It makes sense to choose fail safe, rigorous policies in those cases. But, otherwise, we’re better off picking good policies/processes/decisions that do the job most of the time.

And, in the off chance they don’t work, we must learn to habitually separate bad outcomes from good processes.

(H/T: Tools of Titans by Tim Ferriss)

The jerk threshold

Every one of us is capable of exhibiting jerk behavior. We just have different ways of doing so – we either move against people, move towards people, or move away from people.

Put differently, some fight fire with fire, others fight it by exhibiting passive aggressiveness, and yet some others attempt to ignore the situation. Each of these behaviors are counter productive in tough situations. But, it is hard to catch them because they are flip sides of our strengths. There’s just a threshold after which these strengths become counter productive.

The questions that follow are – i) when is that threshold triggered? and ii) how can we better catch ourselves?

Some triggers are relatively easy to solve for. For example, most folks are triggered by a lack of sleep or food. The harder ones are when baggage in relationships activates a pattern that results in triggering jerk behavior.

Catching ourselves is really hard – there is no fail safe way I know of. The best solution is a consistent, high degree of self awareness that isn’t easy to sustain. The next best solution is acceptance of our own fallibility. If we can accept that we exhibit jerk behavior from time to time, it becomes easier to catch ourselves when we do…


Invisible asymptotes

Eugene Wei, who used to run Product at Hulu and Flipboard, had a fantastic post out on Invisible Asymptotes. An invisible asymptote is the ceiling of the growth curve if we proceeded down the certain path.

For example, Amazon’s invisible asymptote (and that of most e-commerce businesses) in the early days was shipping. People hated shipping fees and bought considerably more once they were on Amazon Prime. While such insights are obvious in retrospect, these asymptotes aren’t easy to identify. And, to that end, he offers two thought provoking insights.

The first is that customers are excellent at telling us what they don’t want or don’t like. Product managers spend a lot of time optimizing their funnels and learning more about who reaches the bottom. This is great in the early days as survival depends on strong product market fit with one group. However, as a company grows, we identify our invisibly asymptotes by understanding who falls out at the top of the funnel. That’s how we expand our offering.

The second is about around how he finds successful people to be much more conscious of their own personal asymptotes at a much earlier age than others. Somebody he knew determined in grade school that that she’d never be a world-class tennis player or pianist. Another knew a year into a job that he wouldn’t be the best programmer at his company and so he switched over into management; he rose to become CEO.

His final two paragraphs brings both these takeaways together beautifully –

By discovering their own limitations early, they are also quicker to discover vectors on which they’re personally unbounded. Product development will always be a multi-dimensional problem, often frustratingly so, but the value of reducing that dimensionality often costs so little that it should be more widely employed.

This isn’t to say a person needs to aspire to be the best at everything they do. I’m at peace with the fact that I’ll likely always be a middling cook, that I won’t win the Tour de France, and that I’m destined to be behind a camera and not in front of it. When it comes to business, however, and surviving in the ruthless Hobbesian jungle, where much more is winner-take-all than it once was, the idea that you can be whatever you want to be, or build whatever you want to build, is a sure path to a short, unhappy existence.

Tool problems and clarity of purpose problems

When we’re trying to drive change, we typically run into two types of problems – i) Tool problems or ii) Clarity of purpose problems.

For example, I’ve come to believe I am one true reset away from being a much better version of myself. This is coming from months of observing my desire to ‘seek to understand and then to be understood’ wilt as I move through the day. I kept telling myself the importance of finding a way to reset over the course of the day – but, change never came as I was clear about why it mattered.

I finally got a timer app to remind me to do so every 30 minutes and resetting has worked better since.

Similarly, an organization may want its employees to start entering granular expense reports for compliance reasons. If this isn’t communicated, employees may not get on with the program. Then again, even if they do understand, if their expense recording software is draconian, employees may still be dissuaded from entering expenses.

When we’re looking to drive change, it helps to be clear if we’re trying to solve a problem with the tool or with a clarity of purpose. And, zooming back further, the best solutions are designed for problems that are well understood.

We decide how we show up

There’s always a reason to show up in a way that doesn’t reflect our best self. The weather, your mood, the current situation, the economy, that pain in your knee – take your pick. And, these extraneous factors seem to grow in importance the more attention we pay to them.

But, they are just manifestations of the resistance. They’ll stick around till we decide we’re done with the excuses.

No matter the weather, the situation or the mood, we can choose to show up to be positive, thoughtful, and learning focused if that’s how we want to show up. It is our call and deciding to relinquish that call is our call too.

It is a bit of work – especially on days when said conditions are not ideal. But, it is work worth doing.

A finance thesis sheet

Managing finances is a lot like managing our teams, work or lives. The principles we need to do a good job as managers of our finances are easily accessible – a penny saved is more valuable than a penny earned, compounding, time value of money, and diversification among others. There are many ways to apply these principles and it is on us to pick our own philosophy and style.

Like a management philosophy, picking a financial philosophy involves making peace with the fact that it won’t work at all times and in all situations. Every process has a range of expected outcomes. So, if we choose to be a low risk investor who expects to spend very little bandwidth thinking about money, we can’t expect to make an investment that gives us 1000% return. It may happen. But, the more likely scenario is that it won’t.

The challenge, however, is that we don’t start off knowing what kind of manager or investor we are. Luckily, thanks to the scientific method, that is a solved problem. We pick a hypothesis and begin working toward it. As we experiment and inevitably fail, we begin to learn and develop an approach that begins to work for us.

And, I’ve found that a reliable way to ensure that we’re extracting all possible lessons from our stumbles is to maintain a finance thesis sheet. The only requirement to maintain this is write out these principles, your philosophy, and your hypothesis. Then, keep a log of every key financial decision you make and what you learn from it.

Over time, this thesis sheet will become richer and better and will enable us to iterate our way into a style that suits us.

Just as in management and life.

Drowning doesn’t look like drowning

Mario Vittone, a trained rescue swimmer and former member of the Coast Guard, has written extensively on drowning. I came across his article on Slate recently and was grateful for his insight when I read it. Here are 3 things I took away –

  1. We are conditioned by television to recognize drowning by a mix of waving, splashing, and screaming. In real life, drowning is almost deceptively quiet. It is the second highest cause of accidental death in kids below age 15. And, at least in 10% of the drownings, the adults will have no idea it is happening.
  2. When folks drown, they can’t call out for help or wave. Their bodies look vertical and their mouths appear to sink and reappear above the surface of the water. It doesn’t mean a person who is splashing and yelling in the water isn’t drowning. They are in aquatic distress but still have the power to do something about it – unlike in the case of drowning.
  3. And, in his words – “So if a crew member falls overboard and everything looks OK—don’t be too sure. Sometimes the most common indication that someone is drowning is that they don’t look like they’re drowning. They may just look like they are treading water and looking up at the deck. One way to be sure? Ask them, “Are you all right?” If they can answer at all—they probably are. If they return a blank stare, you may have less than 30 seconds to get to them. And parents—children playing in the water make noise. When they get quiet, you get to them and find out why.”

We all spend time near the water. If you can, learn how to swim. And, once you do, be observant and safe.

Thanks, Mario, for sharing.