Book Review: “Red Teaming” by Bryce Hoffman

Groupthink or complacency can be devastating when developing great products. Having someone who plays or is a devil’s advocate is often a welcome aspect of the product development process. So-called “red teams” take playing devil’s advocate to the next level; the mission of such teams is to force businesses and people to think differently. Red teams will push businesses to consider alternative points of view or contemplate worst case scenarios. Red teaming makes us aware of our assumptions and cognitive biases, and offers us a means of overcoming them. “Red Teaming” is the brilliant book by Bryce Hoffman in which he examines the origins of red teaming and offers an abundance of red teaming techniques.

 

 

 

Red teaming exercises are applied in a wide range of contexts:

  • Cybersecurity – Companies hiring specialised red teams to attack their technology and exploit security vulnerabilities. Going beyond standard penetration tests, red teams will act as aggressively and unrestricted as any hacker would.
  • Intelligence – Whether it’s NATO, the CIA or the Israeli army, they all have teams dedicated to doing “alternative analysis”, set up explicitly to challenge prevalent assumptions within intelligence bodies.
  • Business – When developing a business strategy, companies often consider a best case scenario, assuming that everything will go to plan. Red teaming exercises can help in laying bare any strategic gaps or flaws, helping companies scan the business environment for both threats and opportunities.

Whatever the context, red teaming is all about rigorous questioning and thinking unconventionally. Red teams consists of people who’ve proven to be contrarian thinkers. These are the three phases of a typical red teaming exercise:

  1. Using analytical tools to question the arguments and assumptions that too often go unquestioned during the regular planning process.
  2. Using imaginative techniques to figure out what could go wrong – and what could go right – with the plan, in order to expose hidden threats and missed opportunities.
  3. Applying contrarian thinking to challenge the plan and force the organisation to consider alternative perspectives.

Hoffman argues that adopting a red teaming mindset means that you’re not taking anything for granted, challenging everything and thinking the unthinkable. Red teaming is about looking at the future, and not getting burdened by the past. In the book, Hoffman also explain what red teaming is not:

  • A challenge to leadership – The red team’s role is to empower leaders and managers to make better decisions by providing them with a more objective analysis, a more comprehensive picture of the business environment, and alternative options to consider.
  • A creator of new plans – Hoffman stresses that red teams don’t make plans. In contrast, their purpose is to make existing plans better.
  • Always right (or has to be right) – Red teams don’t need to be right to be effective. They work more effectively in those environments where it’s ok to be wrong.

The question arises when it make sense to create a red team. Hoffman explains that although all red teaming starts out with a problem, not all problems require red teaming. David Snowden’s Cynefin framework is great tool to figure whether it’s worth doing a red teaming exercise:

 

 

Fig. 1 – David Snowden’s Cynefin framework – Taken from: https://www.researchgate.net/figure/The-four-contexts-of-the-Cynefin-framework-When-in-disorder-the-actual-context-is-not_fig2_283194976

 

If problems fall in the “complicated” or the “simple” quadrants of the Cynefin framework, they can be solved through a more straightforward, reductionist approach to problem solving. Problems that are “complex” or “chaotic” tend to be much more open ended and fluid, thus benefiting from a more radical problem solving approach. Ideally, red teaming should begin after a plan has been created but before it has been approved, while there’s still time to approve it.

Finally, Hoffman’s book contains a range of valuable techniques to consider as part of a red teaming exercise:

  • Problem Restatement – When faced with a challenge or problem, one of the best first steps in solving – even before you start thinking up possible solutions – is to examine and restate the problem.
  • Think-Write-Share – This technique is a way of ensuring that the red team begins with divergent thinking and moves to convergent thinking. The technique works like this: Start by asking team members to think about a problem or question, then write down their thoughts and share them with the group.
  • 1-2-4-All – 1-2-4-All enables you to engage all team members simultaneously – irrespective of team size – in generating questions, ideas, and suggestions.
  • Argument Dissection – Dissecting an argument involves asking a number of questions of any argument that is used to justify a particular course of action, or that is offered as an explanation for a problem.
  • Key Assumptions Check – Hoffman explains how in red teaming, it’s essential to differentiate between facts and assumptions. Facts are things that are objectively true right now. However, most plans fail because they rely on unstated or unexamined assumptions.

Main learning point: Red teams or red teaming exercises can be extremely valuable for businesses, whether you’re creating a strategy or developing a new product. Red teaming breaks through groupthink and inertia, and will offer important alternative perspectives to consider.

 

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_team
  2. https://brycehoffman.com/books/red-teaming/
  3. http://web.archive.org/web/20130509055208/http://slashdot.org/topic/bi/symphony-of-self-destruction-strengthening-security-with-a-red-team/
  4. https://foreignpolicy.com/2015/10/30/inside-the-cia-red-cell-micah-zenko-red-team-intelligence/
  5. https://www.act.nato.int/images/stories/events/2011/cde/rr_ukdcdc.pdf
  6. https://www.act.nato.int/images/stories/media/capdev/capdev_03.pdf
  7. https://hbr.org/2007/11/a-leaders-framework-for-decision-making
  8. Morgan D. Jones – The Thinker’s Toolkit
  9. https://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/files/4-TWPS_Template.pdf
  10. http://www.liberatingstructures.com/1-1-2-4-all/

 

Book review: “Outcomes Over Output” by Joshua Seiden

Over the years I’ve learned a lot from Josh Seiden, starting with “Lean UX” which he coauthored with Jeff Gothelf. Seiden recently published “Outcomes Over Output” a nifty little book (should take about 40 minutes to read), which – you guessed it – encourages it readers to move from “making stuff” to creating outcomes by changing customer behaviour. Seiden asserts that customer behaviour is the key metric for business success:

  1. What is an outcome? Seiden defines an outcome as “a change in human behaviour that drives business results.” He goes on to explain that outcomes have nothing to do with making ‘stuff’ – though they’re something created by making the right stuff. He explains that “outcomes are the changes in the customer, user, employee behaviour that lead to good things for your company, your organisation, or whomever is the focus of your work.”
  2. Delivering value early and often – Instead of big bang product releases, Seiden stresses the importance of creating specific, smaller customer behaviours that drive business results. Think for instance about enabling users to create music playlist, so that they can find their favourite music easily. You can create new behaviours or focus on existing customer behaviours (e.g. opening emails or sharing images). This could in turn help increase the life time value of those users, which is a measurable business result. Seiden reminds us of the first Agile principle – “our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software.” Seiden rephrases this principle slightly to best fit today’s context: “our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of value.”
  3. Outcomes, experiments, hypotheses, and MVPs – I loved Seiden’s point about what constitutes an Minimum Viable Product (‘MVP’) and what doesn’t. “An MVP is NOT version 1.0 of your product. Instead, think of MVP as the smallest thing you can make to learn if your hypothesis is correct”, explains Seiden. He talks about agile projects effectively being a series of hypotheses and experiments, all designed to achieve an outcome.
  4. Finding the right outcomes (1) – For me, the million dollar question behind “Outcomes Over Output” is how teams determine the right outcomes to concentrate on. Firstly, you start with a fairly simple question: “what are the customer behaviours that drive business results?” You set an “impact level target”; e.g. increase the rate at which customers visit the site from once a month to twice a month or to reduce the number of times users abandon the checkout process on the app from hundred times a month to ten times a month. Secondly, once the impact level target has been defined, we can then ask “what are the things that customers do that they predict they’ll visit our site?” or “what are the behaviours that predict a successful customer checkout on the app?” In both examples, the focus is on observable and measurable outcomes.
  5. Finding the right outcomes (2) – Rather helpfully, Seiden shares what he refers to as “The Magic Questions” that we can all apply when figuring out the right, measurable outcomes to concentrate on: (1) What are the user and customer behaviours that drive business results. This is the outcome that we’re trying to create; (2) How can we get people to do more of these behaviours? These are the features, policy changes, promotions, etc. that we’ll do to create the right outcomes and (3) How do we know that we’re right? This uncovers the dynamics of the system, as well as the tests and metrics we’ll use to measure our progress.
  6. Planning around outcomes – Instead of building plans around outputs or features, it often makes makes more sense to plan around themes of work, problems to solve, or outcomes to deliver. Seiden makes the point that the less certain that you are that your outputs (i.e. the features that you want to deliver) will deliver the results you seek, the more it makes sense to plan in terms of outcomes and to build your roadmaps around sets of outcomes.

Main learning point: “Outcomes Over Outputs” does a great job of linking customer focus with specific business results, and is a great read for anyone keen to make the right impact on customer behaviour for the right reasons.

Book review: Banish Your Inner Critic by Denise Jacobs

 

I think it’s fair to assume that suffering from ‘imposter syndrome’ is common among most of us. Even with those people where you least expect it, they often suffer from some form of self-criticism. In her latest book “Banish Your Inner Critic”, Denise Jacobs links creativity and imposter syndrome: “creativity comes from relaxing self-evaluation and self-judgment – and the self-criticism and self-doubt that result from them.” Not to say that only creative people are prone to self-criticism, but Jacobs focuses on how feeling like an imposter can impact one’s ability to be creative or try things.

Whilst it’s purely anecdotal evidence, I know a lot of creative (product) people who can be their own worst critic. Full disclosure: I’m definitely one of them 🙂 It’s that inner voice telling you that your work is sh*t or, even worse, that you’re useless as a person. Self-criticism can really put (and keep) us down, not only blocking our creativity but also the ways in which we present ourselves or interact with others. In “Banish Your Inner Critic” Jacobs explores where our inner critical voice comes from and how to best manage it:

  1. Replace self-criticism with self-compassion: Jacobs points out that instead of applying self-criticism, we need to actively practice the opposite: self-compassion. Self-compassion is realising that self-criticism is the enemy and then acting to reverse its negative effects. Jacobs adds that self-compassion also helps to unlock creativity. She helpfully explains the two components of self-compassion; (1) making a conscious effort to stop self-judgment and (2) actively comforting ourselves, the same as we would do with a friend in need.
  2. Recognise your inner critical voice – Awareness of your inner critical voice (“Inner Critic”) is crucial. This then enables you to see your critical thoughts for what they are: thoughts. Jacobs shares a great template to help you unearth your critical thoughts (see Fig. 1 below). She adds that “being more aware of what your brain and mind do when sensing a potential threat in the form of being judged and receiving criticism will encourage the development of a calmer part of the mind.”
  3. Know your cognitive distortions – There are a number of so-called cognitive distortions that are relevant to the Inner Critic. Jacobs invites readers to reflect on these and assess how many of them have stuck with them (see Fig. 2 below).
  4. Seek positive confirmation – The good thing about negative confirmation bias, Jacobs points out, is that it can be flipped to create a positive full-filling prophecy too. Rather than walking around in a perpetual state of feeling that no one believes in you, you can be on the hunt for support. Take confirmation and use it as a force for good, Jacobs says, to seek out positivity rather than negativity.
  5. Stop awfulising – I know from experience that it can be easy to slip in a mindset where the worst has just happened or is about to happen. In her book, Jacobs recommends looking at the facts of the situation at hand without embellishing or minimising them as a way of trying to avoid a ‘spiralling’ effect (see Fig. 3 below).
  6. Live better through criticism – Truth be told, I used to really struggle with receiving criticism. Like most people, I still don’t love criticism, but have gotten better at taking in criticism and using it to improve. Jacobs provide a number of valuable tips to help you learn take criticism in well and use to get better at whatever you are doing (see Fig. 4 below).
  7. Move from stagnation to action – The best quote in “Banish Your Inner Critic” comes from Chetan Bhagat: “Be so busy improving yourself that you have no time to criticise others.” Jacobs makes the point that by letting go of our preoccupation with the trajectory of other people’s lives, we can transform our envy from a stagnant, blocking force into a powerful motivator for growth.

Main learning point: “Banish Your Inner Critic” is a very valuable resource for anyone suffering from imposter syndrome, wanting to better manage their critical inner voice. The book’s greatest strength is in helping you reframe your self-criticism; seeing critical thoughts for what they are and combating them with compassionate thoughts.

 

Fig. 1 – The critical voices in your head – Taken from: Denise Jacobs, Banish Your Inner Critic, pp. 77-78:

I can’t ______________________________________ because ______________________________________________________.

I’m not _____________________________________________________________________________________ enough.

I’m afraid that I’m _________________________ because I ______________________________________________________.

I never ____________________________________ because I always _______________________________________________.

I’m afraid that I’ll _____________________________ because I ___________________________________________________.

I can’t ________________________________________ because I’m not as _____________________________________ others.

If I __________________________________________ then people will _________________________________________________.

I shouldn’t __________________________________ because I haven’t _______________________________________________.

I _____________________________________________ because my ideas ______________________________________________.

I’m too ________________________________________________________________________________________________________.

My biggest fear around my creativity is ______________________________________________________________________.

 

Fig. 2 – Know your cognitive distortions – Taken from: Denise Jacobs, Banish Your Inner Critic, pp. 110-130:

  1. Mental Filter (also called selective abstraction or tunnel vision) / Magnification and Minimisation (also called the binocular trick) – You find ample evidence to support negative beliefs, but filter out any positive counterexamples.
  2. Overgeneralisation – You make a broad, sweeping negative conclusion from a single isolated occurrence and then apply to all instances of its kind, making a truism from it.
  3. Jumping to conclusions – You negatively interpret the meaning of a situation without any actual evidence or facts to support your conclusion.
  4. Mind reading – You determine that the thoughts of others toward you are unfavourable despite lacking sufficient evidence, considering other more likely possibilities, or even checking it out..
  5. Fortune telling or catastrophising – You predict that circumstances will turn out poorly, and then are convinced that your prediction is fact despite lacking supportive evidence.
  6. Emotional reasoning – You turn feelings into facts and assume that the way you feel emotionally is a reflection of reality, and ignore evidence to the contrary.
  7. All or Nothing Thinking (also called black and white, polarised or dichotomous thinking) – You look at situations in black and white categories instead of along a continuum.
  8. Should statements (also called imperatives) – You use shoulds and should nots as your main source of motivation, holding yourself to a precise and strict list of acceptable behaviour.
  9. Disqualifying / Diminishing the positive – You discount or ignore positive experiences, situations, attributes, and qualities.
  10. Personalisation – You assume responsibility for negative events and circumstances that are outside of your control, blaming yourself unnecessarily for situations without more plausible explanations for the root causes.
  11. Labelling and mislabelling – You generalise and make labels of negative characterisations of yourself and others based on perceived shortcomings and a limited set of behaviours, without considering facts otherwise.

 

Fig. 3 – Stop awfulising – Taken from: Denise Jacobs, Banish Your Inner Critic, p. 121:

First on a piece of paper or in a journal, write down and answer the question:

  • What I am afraid will happen?

Next, write down a response to this question:

  • What could happen?

However, instead of going into a place where your anxious thoughts push yourself to awfulise the situation, actively apply realistic optimism. Tell yourself the story of what could possibly happen using “and then …” to devise an alternative that is positive instead of the feared outcome. Build upon this new realistically optimistic story by making each of your “and then…” additions more positive until you feel better and your fear diminishes.

Use this framework:

and then ___________________________________________________________________________________________________________.

and then ___________________________________________________________________________________________________________.

and then ___________________________________________________________________________________________________________.

 

Fig. 4 – Curious and open – Taken from: Denise Jacobs, Banish Your Inner Critic, pp. 132-133:

  1. Breathe – Get yourself grounded and make an effort to stay relaxed so that you don’t end up blocking the information through being tense, anxious or defensive.
  2. Detach – Make an effort to detach whatever criticism you get from your self-worth. Even when it seems that a person is criticising who you are as a person, there’s a good chance that what they are actually criticising is your behaviour.
  3. Listen actively – One of the best ways to do so is to write everything down. This will help you detach from your emotions and put you more into a listening mode. Ask questions to clarify points, and make notes of items to double-check or focus when you review your notes.
  4. Get specifics – What specifically does the person think you need to improve? What are her or his thoughts and suggestions on how you can do so?
  5. Find the relevant – Take criticisms with a grain of salt. Use your powers of discernment to keep what is relevant and ignore the rest.
  6. Invite – Actively solicit constructive criticism or ask for it – and be appreciate of their suggestions.
  7. Discover – Set your intention to discover new perspectives and ideas that you may not have considered.
  8. Be curious – Approach the criticisms with curiosity. Look for what was the most interesting thing the person said. It could be that they revealed a major insight through that point.
  9. Grow – The criticism can help to shine a light on issues that you still need to resolve within yourself: fears, doubts, and insecurities.
  10. Save time and learn – Changing how you react to criticism is actually a time-saver: if you really take in the information and learn from it, you will save yourself making the same mistakes and having to try the lessons in the future.

 

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://self-compassion.org/wp-content/uploads/publications/Gilbert.Procter.pdf
  2. https://www.mindtheproduct.com/2018/03/dont-feel-like-imposter-youre-something-wrong-rik-higham/
  3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=whyUPLJZljE
  4. https://www.ted.com/talks/elizabeth_cox_what_is_imposter_syndrome_and_how_can_you_combat_it?
  5. https://www.neurosciencemarketing.com/blog/articles/book-review-train-your-mind-change-your-brain.htm

Book review: The Making of a Manager by Julie Zhuo

“The Making of a Manager” is the first book by Julie Zhuo, VP of Product Design at Facebook. In “The Making of a Manager”, Julie shares her experiences and learnings with regard to her transition from being a personal contributor to becoming a manager. “This is a book about how someone with no formal training learned to become a confident manager” is the starting point for Julie’s book.

When she started her first role as a manager at Facebook, Julie had very little experience under her belt and she describes what she thought a manager’s job was:

  • have meetings with reports to help them solve their problems,
  • share feedback about what is or isn’t going well, and
  • figure out who should be promoted and who should be fired.

Without wanting to spoil the rest of “The Making of a Manager”, this is how Julie sees a manager’s job today:

  • build a team that works well together,
  • support members in reaching their career goals, and
  • create processes to get work done smoothly and efficiently.

Julie summarises that “Your job, as a manager, is to get better outcomes from a group of people working together.” She puts a great focus on outcomes and refers to her former manager Chris Cox, ex VP of Product at Facebook, who explained that half of what he as a manager looks at were his team’s results and the other half was based on the strength and satisfaction of his team.

I liked Julie’s inclusion of Richard J. Hackman’s research into what helps create successful teams (see Fig. 1 below). She uses a similar approach to managers creating the right conditions for their teams:

  • Purpose – The purpose is the outcome your team is trying to accomplish, otherwise known as the why. The first big part of your job as a manager, Julie writes, is to ensure that your team knows what success looks like and cares about achieving it.
  • People – This is all about the who. Are the members of your team set up to succeed? Do they have the right skills? Are they motivated to do great work? To manage people well, Julie explains, you must develop trusting relationships with them, understand their strengths and weaknesses (as well as your own – see below), make good decisions about who should do what (including hiring and firing when necessary), and coach individuals to do their best.
  • Process – This describes how your team works together. Julie clarifies that process in her mind isn’t about stacks of paperwork and frameworks for everything, but enabling teams to make decisions and work together effectively: “In a team setting, it’s impossible for a group of people to coordinate what needs to get done without spending time on it. The larger the team, the more time is needed.”

Staying on the topic of defining management, Julie provides a useful distinction between leadership and management. Manager is a specific role, with clear principles outlining what a manager does and how his success is measured. Leadership, on the other hand, is the particular skill of being able to guide and influence other people. Julie makes the point that a leader doesn’t have to be a manager; “Anyone can exhibit leadership, regardless of their role.”

In “The Making of a Manager”, Julie covers a lot of different facets of becoming and being a manager. From recounts her first couple of months as a manager to breaking down her views on strong management, Julie offers a ton of insights and tips for those of us who are managers or would like to take on this role. Let’s pick some aspects that resonated with me most:

  • Trust is the most important ingredient – It may sound obvious, but the importance of investing time and effort into creating / maintaining trusting relationships can get easily overlooked. Julie mentions that the hallmark of a trusting relationship is that people feel they can share their mistakes, challenges, and fears with you.
  • Giving and receiving critical feedback – Similar to Kim Scott and Amy Edmondson, Julie talks about how managers and their direct reports need to be able to give each other critical feedback regularly without it being taken personally. If your report does work that you don’t think is great, are you comfortable saying that directly? Similarly, would your report tell you if you if he thinks you’ve made a mistake?
  • Be honest and transparent about your report’s performance – As a manager, your perspective on how your report is doing carries far more weight than his perspective on how you’re doing. After all, you’re the one who determines what he works on and whether he should get a promotion or be fired.
  • Admit your own mistakes and growth areas – Julie shares how she tries to admit when she doesn’t have the answers or when she’s working through her own personal challenges, and shares a number of useful phrases that she’ll typically use when doing so (see Fig. 2 below).
  • Managing yourself – Here, Julie talks about the so-called imposter syndrome, i.e. where you doubt your accomplishments and worry being exposed as a “fraud”.  She raises the question why imposter syndrome hits managers particularly hard and gives two main reasons. Firstly, because managers are often looked to for answers. Secondly, managers are constantly put in the position where they’re put in the position if doing things they haven’t done before. She also talks about managers identifying their own strengths and weaknesses, and “being brutally honest with yourself”.
  • Amazing meetings – I liked Julie’s points about meetings, the bane of most managers’ lives. She distinguishes between decision-making meetings and informational meetings and explains how being clear about the meeting objective (and structuring the meeting accordingly) can lead to much more effective and enjoyable meetings (see Fig. 3 below).

Fig. 1 – Richard J. Hackman, Hackman’s 5 Factor Model:

Being a Real Team – One with clear boundaries and stable membership.

Compelling Direction – Provide the team with clear goals, which are both challenging and consequential.

Enabling Structure – Where possible, offering the team variety in the tasks they undertake improves the team’s success. Within the team’s structure it’s also key to ensure that team members have strong social skills.

Supportive Context – A supportive context is essential for companies and organisations, as they are made up of small groups which when combined form a larger group.

Expert Coaching – This is about coaching and mentoring the team to help achieve the outcomes they need to achieve and support team members developing their individual skills.

 

Fig. 2 – Julie Zhou, The Making of a Manager: Sample things to say when you don’t have the answer or are working through personal challenges:

  • “I don’t know the answer. What do you think?”
  • “I want to come clean and apologise for what I did/said the other day …”
  • “One of my personal growth areas this half is …”
  • “I’m afraid I don’t know enough to help you with that problem. Here’s someone you should talk to instead …”

 

Fig. 3 – Julie Zhou, The Making of a Manager: Decision-Making Meetings and Informational Meetings:

A great decision-making meeting does the following:

  • Gets a decision made (obviously)
  • Includes the people most directly affected by the decision as well as a clearly designated decision-maker.
  • Presents all credible options objectively and with relevant background information, and includes the team’s recommendation if there’s one.
  • Gives equal airtime to dissenting opinions and makes people feel that they were heard.

A great informational meeting does the following:

  • Enables the group to feel like they learned something valuable.
  • Conveys key messages clearly and memorably.
  • Keeps the audience’s attention (through dynamic speakers, rich storytelling, skilled pacing, interactivity).
  • Evokes and intended emotion – whether inspiration, trust, pride, courage, empathy, etc.

Main learning point: “The Making of a Manager” provides an honest, no bullsh*t account of what it means to be manager and how to best transition into a managerial role. Definitely worth a read if you’re manager or looking to become one.

Related links for further learning:

  1. http://www.juliezhuo.com/
  2. https://medium.com/the-year-of-the-looking-glass
  3. https://hbr.org/2009/05/why-teams-dont-work
  4. https://marcabraham.com/2018/03/12/book-review-the-no-asshole-rule/
  5. http://www.free-management-ebooks.com/faqld/development-03.htm
  6. https://www.cnbc.com/2017/01/30/sallie-krawcheck-says-a-lack-of-diversity-leads-to-bad-decision-making.html
  7. https://marcabraham.com/2019/01/27/my-product-management-toolkit-35-effective-one-on-one-meetings/
  8. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZQUxL4Jm1Lo
  9. https://hbr.org/product/becoming-a-manager-how-new-managers-master-the-challenges-of-leadership/1822-PBK-ENG
  10. https://www.tmbc.com/
  11. https://strengthsprofile.com/

 

Book review: “The Messy Middle” by Scott Belsky

 

I’m sure a lot of us have common misconceptions about successful entrepreneurs and their companies. It’s easy to look at people who’ve ‘made it’ and think that their journey has been all plain sailing. Scott Belsky is such an entrepreneur, having founded Behance, a platform for creative professionals to show off their work, which eventually got acquired by Adobe. In “The Messy Middle”, Belsky eradicates any illusions about the process of creating – whether it’s a business or a product – being painless. He writes about the different stages of a startup lifecycle: the start, the middle and the finish. Belsky makes the point that “it’s not about the start and finish, it’s about the journey in between.”

 

Fig. 1 – Scott Belsky, Navigating The Messy Middle – Taken from: https://medium.com/positiveslope/navigating-the-messy-middle-7ca6fff11966

 

At the start, there’s “pure joy” to begin with. That is before reality kicks in and things hit bottom. Belsky describes the finish as “final mile of journey and the recovery time between one project and the next”, the point where you can allow yourself to take a break and make a change. I, however, specifically bought the book because I was intrigued to read Belsky’s thoughts about the ‘messy middle’. Belsky writes about this period, as a collection of peaks – ‘optimising’ – and valleys – ‘enduring’. It’s this period which benefits from volatility. Volatility being positioned as a good thing might sound counterintuitive to some, but Belsky argues that “volatility is good for velocity”:

“The faster you move, the better your chances of learning and momentum to soar above the competition.”

Scott Belsky, The Messy Middle

 

To achieve this level of velocity, Belsky encourages conducting experiments, and lots of them. Running these experiments means that you’ll be both enduring the lows and optimising everything that works. In “The Messy Middle”, Belsky shares a ton of lessons learned and tips, particularly in relation to those stages of your company or product that are dominated by enduring and optimising. Allow me to give you a quick shopping list of those points by Belsky which resonated with me most:

  • Avoid validation in the form of false positives –  To objectively observe the performance of your new creation or product, put yourself in others’ shoes. Belsky refers to points made by Ben Horowitz about telling the truth in this respect (see Fig. 1 below).
  • Celebrate progress and impact – Especially at the early stages, celebrate anything you can. Whilst you should avoid ‘fake wins’, celebrating quick wins and progress milestones is important.
  • Master the art of parallel processing – This involves being able to focus on a specific problem whilst also churning through the omnipresent anxiety and uncertainty involved in building things.
  • Friction unlocks the full potential of working together – Hardship brings your teams together and equips you to endure for the long haul.
  • Do Your Fucking Job (‘DYFJ’) – Leading a team through enduring times requires many “rip off the Band-Aid” moments. Nobody wants to inflict pain on their team, but quick and controlled pain is better than a drawn out infection. This also implies checking your ego at the door, instead concentrating on what needs to be done.
  • Self awareness as the only sustainable competitive advantage in business – Your sense of self is likely to shift when you’re at a peak or in a valley (see Fig. 2 below).
  • Break the long game down into chapters – Belsky recounts the approach by Ben Silbermann, CEO of Pinterest, who breaks up every period of his company into chapters, each with a beginning, goal, reflection period, and reward. Chapters help break down the long timescale it takes to build something extraordinary. I like to think of them as strategic milestones, each time getting one step closer to achieving the vision for the business.
  • Do the work regardless of whose work it is – Everyone has an opinion, but few are willing to do something about it – especially if it falls outside their formal job description. Belsky describes his marvel at just how quickly an idea takes hold when someone proactively does the underlying work no one else clearly owned. He goes on to talk about how hiring for people with excitement about the idea, ability to contribute right away and the potential to learn is key when assembling a team.
  • Never stop crafting the “first mile” of your product’s experience – Whether you’re building a product, creating art, or writing a book, you need to remember that your customers make sweeping judgments in their first experience interacting with your creation – especially in the first 30 seconds. Belsky call this the “first mile”, and he argues that it’s important to prime your audience to the point where they know three things: 1. Why they’re there (2) What they can accomplish and (3) What to do next.
  • Identify and prioritise efforts with disproportionate impact – Belsky shares a nice prioritisation method by Jeffrey Kalmikoff, which Jeffrey uses to help choose where to focus his energy: look at each item on the table and assign a 3 for very important tasks that would make a huge impact on strategy and revenue, a 2 for something with less significance, and a 1 for something inconsequential.
  • Stress-test your opinions with radical truthfulness – “Sound judgment, achieved through aggressive truth seeking, is your most differentiating and deterministic trait. It’s all about being honest.” This is one of the founding principles behind Bridgewater, the leading hedge funded founded by Ray Dalio. One of the most fundamental principles driving behaviour at Bridgewater is the notion of “Know what you don’t know, and what to do about it.”

Main learning point: In “The Messy Middle”, Belsky has written a book that I expect to be coming back to over the coming years; it’s a great reminder of the realities involved in creating things and contains a lot of valuable lessons learned as well as practical tips.

 

Fig. 1 – Ben Horowitz – Three methods for assigning meaning to hard truths, taken from https://a16z.com/2017/07/27/how-to-tell-the-truth/:

  • State the facts clearly and honestly.
  • If you caused it, explain how such a bad thing could occur.
  • Explain why taking the action is essential to the larger mission and how important that mission is.

 

Fig. 2 – Self awareness, by Scott Belksy – Taken from “The Messy Middle”, pp. 54-56:

  • Self awareness starts with the realisation that when you’re at a peak or in a valley, you’re not your greatest self.
  • Self awareness means understanding your own feelings enough to recognise what bothers you.
  • Self awareness means being permeable.
  • Self awareness comes from chronicling your patterns.
  • Self awareness means dispelling your sense of superiority and the myths that people believe about you.

 

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://www.themessymiddle.com/
  2. https://a16z.com/2017/07/27/how-to-tell-the-truth/
  3. https://www.adamgrant.net/
  4. https://www.mindtheproduct.com/2017/07/enter-matrix-lean-prioritisation/
  5. https://ryanholiday.net/stop-examine-reconsider/
  6. https://blackboxofpm.com/ruthless-prioritization-e4256e3520a9
  7. https://www.lifehack.org/articles/productivity/how-to-learn-what-you-dont-know.html
  8. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stroop_effect

Book review: “Principles” by Ray Dalio

“Principles” is the latest book by Ray Dalio – founder of Bridgewater, the world’s largest hedge fund. In this rather hefty tome of a book, Dalio offers an insight into the principles which he’s applied throughout his life and work, and his underlying reflections. He kicks off the book by explaining that “Good principles are effective ways of dealing with reality” and that “To learn my own, I spend a lot of time reflecting.”

 

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“Principles” consists of three parts. In the first part, titled “Where I’ coming from”, Dalio looks back on his career and the founding of Bridgewater. “Life Principles” is the name of the second part, and covers Dalio’s approach to life’s challenges and opportunities. Finally. part three covers Dalio’s “Work Principles”. Let me share the key things I’ve taken away from “Principles”, starting with Dalio’s Life Principles:

  • Embrace reality and deal with it – Dalio shares an important equation which in his view makes for a successful life: Dreams + Reality + Determination = A Successful Life. For the ‘reality’ component of this equation to work, Dalio encourages his readers to be radically open minded and radically transparent.
  • Pain + Reflection = Progress – Dalio’s point about “going to the pain rather than avoiding it” resonated with me (see Fig. 1 below). It’s easy to dismiss this statement because it’s coming from a highly successful investor, but I’d flip that as I can see how someone like Dalio has gone through his own share of pain to get to where’s he gotten to, and learned along the way.
  • Using the 5-step process to get what you want out of life – Start with having clear goals (step 1), followed by identifying but not tolerating the problems that stand in the way of your achieving those goals (step 2), then you accurately diagnose the problems to get at their root causes (step 3), design plans that will get you around them (step 4) and, finally, do what’s necessary to push these designs through to results (step 5). Dalio depicts this as a continuous process and people can benefit from applying this model to achieve their goals (see Fig. 2 below).
  • Understand that people are wired very differently – Dalio stresses the fact that all people are wired very differently, and zooms in on the differences between left and right brained thinking (see Fig. 3 – 4 below).

 

Fig. 1 – Going to the pain instead of avoiding it – Taken from: Ray Dalio – Principles, p. 154

  • Identifying, accepting, and learning how to deal with your weaknesses.
  • Preferring that the people around you be honest with you rather than keep their negative thoughts about you to themselves.
  • Being yourself rather than having to be strong where you are weak.

 

Fig. 2 – Ray Dalio’s 5-step process – Taken from: Ray Dalio – Principles, p. 171

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Fig. 3 – Differences between left and right brain – Taken from: https://visme.co/blog/left-brain-right-brain-marketing/

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Fig. 4 – Understand the differences between right-brained and left-brained thinking – Taken from: Ray Dalio – Principles, p. 223

  1. The left hemisphere reasons sequentially, analyses details, and excels at linear analysis. “Left-brained” or “linear” thinkers who are analytically strong are often called “bright.”
  2. The right hemisphere thinks across categories, recognises themes, and synthesises the big picture. “Right-brained” or “lateral” thinkers with more street smart are often called “smart.”

 

Dalio’s Work Principles are dominated by the concept of an Idea Meritocracy – i.e. a system that brings together smart, independent thinkers and has them productively disagree to come up with the best possible collective thinking and resolve their disagreements in a believability-weighted way (see Fig. 5 below). Dalio successfully implemented an Idea Meritocracy at Bridgewater and shares the components of such a system in his book:

Idea Meritocracy = Radical Truth + Radical Transparency + Believability – Weighted Decision Making

  • Radical Truth – Talking openly about our issues and have paths for working through them.
  • Radical Transparency – Giving everyone the ability to see everything. Radical transparency reduces harmful office politics and the risks of bad behaviour because bad behaviour is more likely to take place behind closed doors than out in the open.
  • Believability – Dalio defines believable people “as those who have repeatedly and successfully accomplished the thing in question – who have a strong track record with at least three successes – and have great explanations of their approach when probed.”
  • Thoughtful Disagreement – The concept of Believability is closely linked to the art of Thoughtful Disagreement; the process of having a quality back-and-forth in an openminded and assertive way to see things through each other’s eyes.
  • Weighted Decision Making – At Bridgewater, employees have different believability weightings for different qualities, like expertise in a particular subject, creativity, ability to synthesise, etc. Dalio explains that in order to have a true Idea Meritocracy one needs to understand the merit of each person’s ideas.
  • Prerequisites for an Idea Meritocracy – To have an Idea Meritocracy three conditions need to be in place. Firstly, put your honest thoughts on the table. Secondly, have thoughtful disagreement (see above). Thirdly, abide by agreed-upon ways of getting past disagreement.
  • Mistakes are part of the game – Dalio has a refreshing outlook on the role and value of mistakes, which he treats as “a natural part of the evolutionary process”. It’s important in this respect to assess whether people recognise and learn from their mistakes. Dalio distinguishes between people who make mistakes and who are self reflective and open to learning from their mistakes and those who are unable to embrace their mistakes and learn from them.
  • Get people to focus on problems and outcomes – Assign people the job of perceiving problems, give them time to investigate, and make sure they have independent reporting lines so that they can convey problems without any fear of recrimination. To perceive problems, compare how the outcomes are lining up with your goals. Dalio also offers some valuable tips on how to best diagnose problems (see Fig. 6 below).
  • Avoid the “Frog in the boiling water” syndrome – Apparently, if you throw a frog into a pot of boiling water it will jump out immediately, but if you put it in room-temperature water and gradually bring it to a boil, it will stay in the pot until it dies. If one uses this syndrome as a metaphor for professional life, it signifies people’s tendency to slowly get used to unacceptable things that would shock them if the say them with fresh eyes.
  • Don’t just pay attention to your job – Instead, pay attention to how your job will be done if you’re no longer around. Dalio talks about the ‘ninja manger’ as “somebody who can sit back and watch beauty happen-i.e. an orchestrator. If you’re always trying to hire somebody who’s as good as or better than you at your job, that will both free you up to go on to other things and build your succession pipeline.”

 

Fig. 5 – The Idea Meritocracy as is the best way to make decisions – Taken from: https://twitter.com/RayDalio/status/1066357616350253057

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Fig. 6 – Diagnose problems to get at their root causes – Taken from: Ray Dalio – Principles, p. 484 – 490

To diagnose well, ask the following questions:

  • Is the outcome good or bad?
  • Who is responsible for the outcome?
  • If the outcome is bad, is the Responsible Party incapable and / or is the design bad?

 

Main learning point: Whilst “Principles” feels a tad repetitive at times and some of Dalio’s ideas might not be easy to implement, I feel that Dalio’s principles can provide great direction for all people working in organisations, big or small.  His reflections on things such as transparency and decision-making will be valuable to anyone reading this great book.

 

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://youtu.be/c1OoWdqbKdg
  2. https://www.ted.com/talks/ray_dalio_how_to_build_a_company_where_the_best_ideas_win
  3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B9XGUpQZY38
  4. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S7hNda9DVxo

 

Book review: “AI Superpowers”

Dr. Kai-Fu Lee is the chairman and CEO of Sinovation Ventures, a China based tech focused investment firm. Previous to becoming a full-time investor, Lee held positions at Google, Microsoft and Apple. A large part of that career, Lee spent working on data and Artificial Intelligence (‘AI’), both in the US and in China. In “AI Superpowers – China, Silicon Valley and the New World Order” Lee bundles his experiences and insights to describe the progress that China and the US have made and are making in the field of AI.

AI Superpowers contains a heap of valuable insights as well as predictions about the impact of technology power that both the US and China have been racking up. These are the main things that I took away from reading AI Superpowers:

  • US and China, contrasting cultures – Lee starts the book by writing about the contrasts in business culture between the US and China: “China’s startup culture is the yin to Silicon Valley’s yang: instead of being mission-driven, Chinese companies are first and foremost market-driven.” Lee goes on to explain that the ultimate goal of Chinese companies is “to make money, and they’re willing to create any product, adopt any model, or go into any business that will accomplish that objective.” This mentality help to explain the ‘copycat’ attitude that Chinese companies have had historically. Meituan, for example, is a group-discount website which sells vouchers from merchants for deals which started as the perfect counterpart of US-based Groupon.
  • “Online-to-Offline” (‘O2O”) – O2O describes the conversion of online actions into offline services. Ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft are great examples of the new O2O model. In China, Didi copied this model and tailored it to local conditions. Didi was followed by other O2O plays such as Dianping, a food delivery service which subsequently merged with the aforementioned Meituan company, and Tujia, a Chinese version of Airbnb. Lee also mentions WeChat and Alipay, describing how both companies completely overturned China’s all-cash economy. More recently, bike-sharing startups Mobike (see Fig. 1 below) and ofo which supplied tens of millions of internet-connected bicycles, distributing them across them about major Chinese cities and now across the globe.
  • China catching up quickly in the AI department – Having read the story of image recognition algorithm ResNet, and how its inventors moved from Microsoft to join AI startups in China, I can see how China as a country is quickly catching up with the technology stalwart that is Silicon Valley.  One of these image recognition startups, Face +++, has quickly become a market leader in face / image recognition technology, leapfrogging the likes of Google, Microsoft and Facebook along the way.
  • The four waves of AI – In AI Superpowers, Lee argues that what he calls the “AI revolution” will not happen overnight. Instead, AI will wash over us in four waves: internet AI, business AI, perception AI, and autonomous AI (see Fig. 2 below). This part of the book really struck a chord with me, as it brings to life how AI is likely to evolve over the coming years, both in terms of practical applications and use cases.

Main learning point: I’d highly recommend “AI Superpowers” to anyone interested in learning more about how China and the US are furthering the development of AI and the impact of this development on our daily lives.

 

Fig. 1 – Screenshot of the Mobike bike-sharing app – Taken from: https://technode.com/2016/07/07/mobike-uber/

 

Fig. 2 – The four waves of AI – Taken from: Kai-Fu Lee, AI Superpowers, pp. 104 – 139:

  • First wave: Internet AI – Internet AI is largely about using AI algorithms as recommendation engines: systems that learn our personal preferences and then serve up content hand-picked for us. Toutiao, sometimes called “the Buzzfeed of China”, is a great example of this first wave of AI; its “editors” are algorithms.
  • Second wave: Business AI – First wave AI leverages the fact that internet users are automatically labelling data as they browse. Business AI, the second wave of AI, takes advantage of the fact that traditional companies have also been automatically labelling huge quantities of data for decades. For instance, insurance companies have been covering accidents and catching fraud, banks have been issuing loans and documenting repayment rates, and hospitals have been keeping records of diagnoses and survival rates. Business AI mines these data points and databases for hidden correlations that often escape the naked eye and the human brain. RXThinking, an AI based diagnosis app, is a good example in this respect.
  • Third wave: Perception AI – Third wave AI is all about extending and expanding this power throughout our lived environment, digitising the world around us through the proliferation of sensors and smart devices. These devices are turning our physical world into digital data that can then be analysed and optimised by deep-learning algorithms. For example, Alibaba’s City Brain is digitising urban traffic flows through cameras and object-recognition.
  • Fourth wave: Autonomous AI – Autonomous AI represents the integration and culmination of the three preceding waves, fusing machines’ ability to optimise from extremely complex datasets with their newfound sensory powers.

 

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://www.cnbc.com/2018/09/07/chinas-meituan-dianping-confirms-4point4-billion-hong-kong-ipo.html
  2. https://techcrunch.com/2017/10/10/tujia-raises-300-million/
  3. http://www.forbesindia.com/article/ckgsb/how-tujia-chinas-airbnb-is-different-from-airbnb/48853/1
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mobike
  5. https://towardsdatascience.com/an-overview-of-resnet-and-its-variants-5281e2f56035
  6. https://www.faceplusplus.com/
  7. http://www.iflytek.com/en/
  8. https://www.mi.com/global/
  9. https://www.happyfresh.com/
  10. https://www.grab.com/sg/