A Framework for Understanding Human Decisions—Jobs to be Done

This following post originally written for the FullStory blog, but since I am such a Clayton Christensen fan and have blogged about this topic here in the past, syndicating the post for anyone interested.

Clayton Christensen, author of The Innovator’s Dilemma and Harvard business professor, makes the case that in order to understand what motivates people to act, we first must understand what it is they need done — the why behind the what.

Christensen first articulated this idea in a 2005 paper for the Harvard Business Review titled The Cause and the Cure of Marketing Malpractice when he wrote:

When people find themselves needing to get a job done, they essentially hire products to do that job for them 

Clayton Christensen, Photo by Betsy Webber, Shared via CC2.0

If a [businessperson] can understand the job, design a product and associated experiences in purchase and use to do that job, and deliver it in a way that reinforces its intended use, then when customers find themselves needing to get that job done they will hire that product.

Christensen’s theory has become known as the “Jobs” or “Jobs to be done” theory (“JTBD”) as it’s built around a central question: what is the job a person is hiring a product to do?

What is the job to be done?

How do you satisfy your hunger on your commute?

Professor Christensen tells a wonderful story to illustrate JTBD theory. It’s about a fast food company’s attempt to make a better milkshake. Said fast food company took the classic approach. They identified their target milkshake-slurping demographic, surveyed them about their milkshake preferences, implemented their findings, and didn’t improve milkshake sales whatsoever. What happened?

Christensen tells the milkshake story so well that we recommend you give him a listen (4 minutes, YouTube). Alternatively, the story is transcribed below.

Clayton Christensen talks about milkshakes.

We actually hire products to do things for us. And understanding what job we have to do in our lives for which we would hire a product is really the key to cracking this problem of motivating customers to buy what we’re offering.

So I wanted just to tell you a story about a project we did for one of the big fast food restaurants. They were trying to goose up the sales of their milkshakes. They had just studied this problem up the gazoo. They brought in customers who fit the profile of the quintessential milkshake consumer. They’d give them samples and ask, “Could you tell us how we could improve our milkshakes so you’d buy more of them? Do you want it chocolate-ier, cheaper, chunkier, or chewier?”

They’d get very clear feedback and they’d improve the milkshake on those dimensions and it had no impact on sales or profits whatsoever.

So one of our colleagues went in with a different question on his mind. And that was, “I wonder what job arises in people’s lives that cause them to come to this restaurant to hire a milkshake?” We stood in a restaurant for 18 hours one day and just took very careful data. What time did they buy these milkshakes? What were they wearing? Were they alone? Did they buy other food with it? Did they eat it in the restaurant or drive off with it?

It turned out that nearly half of the milkshakes were sold before 8 o’clock in the morning. The people who bought them were always alone. It was the only thing they bought and they all got in the car and drove off with it.

To figure out what job they were trying to hire it to do, we came back the next day and stood outside the restaurant so we could confront these folks as they left milkshake-in-hand. And in language that they could understand we essentially asked, “Excuse me please but I gotta sort this puzzle out. What job were you trying to do for yourself that caused you to come here and hire that milkshake?”

They’d struggle to answer so we then helped them by asking other questions like, “Well, think about the last time you were in the same situation needing to get the same job done but you didn’t come here to hire a milkshake. What did you hire?”

And then as we put all their answers together it became clear that they all had the same job to be done in the morning. That is that they had a long and boring drive to work and they just needed something to do while they drove to keep the commute interesting. One hand had to be on the wheel but someone had given them another hand and there wasn’t anything in it. And they just needed something to do when they drove. They weren’t hungry yet but they knew they would be hungry by 10 o’clock so they also wanted something that would just plunk down there and stay for their morning.

Christensen paraphrasing the commuting milkshake buyer:

“Good question. What do I hire when I do this job? You know, I’ve never framed the question that way before, but last Friday I hired a banana to do the job. Take my word for it. Never hire bananas. They’re gone in three minutes — you’re hungry by 7:30am.

“If you promise not to tell my wife I probably hire donuts twice a week, but they don’t do it well either. They’re gone fast. They crumb all over my clothes. They get my fingers gooey.

“Sometimes I hire bagels but as you know they’re so dry and tasteless. Then I have to steer the car with my knees while I’m putting jam on it and if the phone rings we got a crisis.

“I remember I hired a Snickers bar once but I felt so guilty I’ve never hired Snickers again.

“Let me tell you when I hire this milkshake it is so viscous that it easily takes me 20 minutes to suck it up through that thin little straw. Who cares what the ingredients are — I don’t.

“All I know is I’m full all morning and it fits right here in my cupholder.”

Christensen concludes:

Well it turns out that the milkshake does the job better than any of the competitors, which in the customer’s minds are not Burger King milkshakes but bananas, donuts, bagels, Snickers bars, coffee, and so on.

I hope you can see how if you understand the job, how to improve the product becomes just obvious.

Source: Clayton Christensen, YouTube

When the most direct route is the wrong way.

Christensen’s story about milkshakes implies that the traditional approach — asking a logically defined audience of milkshake consumers “What would make our milkshakes better?” — may be a waste of time.

Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised: this approach confuses the means (The milkshake consumers) with the ends (Satisfying hunger, boring commute, whatever job). The result is “a one-size-fits-none product,” per Christensen, that does nothing for sales.

A business that organizes around solving for the actual needs of consumers has a clear reason for being because it’s those needs — those objectives — that are driving a customer’s behavior in the first place.

Forget the needs of your consumers at your own peril.


Method to the madness.

JTBD brings to our attention something we already know: everyone has reasons for the choices they make — a need, desire, self-actualization, whatever! Shakespeare wrote about this quintessentially human insight some 400 years ago in Hamlet when he penned, “Though this be madness yet there is method in it.”

Understanding the method behind the madness is about having empathy for the user.

When it comes to building products, success requires applied empathy towards better solving needs. That’s why it’s important to question whether features we’re building or product branches we’re developing will do the job better than [something else].

If the development we’re advancing is done without the customer need in focus, we might find we’ve developed the most amazing product that no one wants. (Like the piston-powered airliner — see Benedict Evans on The Best is the Last.)

Harvard Business Professor Theodore Levitt famously quipped, “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!”

Putting Jobs to be Done to work.

Using JTBD to understand consumer needs can be as easy as asking, “What did you turn to the last time you needed to do this?” In Christensen’s milkshake story, it helped consumers to think back on a previous time they were in the same situation and needed that job done — that is, the milkshake buyer needed something to satiate their hunger and their boredom on their long commute to work.

Reflecting on the products you “fired” can help clarify just what you needed to get done. In this regard, JTBD can be used to explain how many once-successful businesses were displaced by competitors that simply did the job better. Examples:

  • Netflix doing the job of Blockbuster — “I need something to entertain me,”
  • Uber, Lyft replacing taxis (and impacting the rental car business) — “I need to get from point A to point B,”
  • Google — “I need ______” … all the things,
  • Amazon — “I need ______” … all the things,
  • Smartphones — “I need _____” … all the things!

The question, “What does our product do better than the competitors?” is at the center of a recent post by Jason Fried (Signal vs. Noise), who channeled JTBD when he wrote, “What are people going to stop doing once they start using your product?”

If you can’t answer this question clearly, could you reasonably expect a potential customer to?

While JTBD is often relegated to business discussions, it can be extended to think about just anything — your career, your hobbies, your relationships. You can ask yourself, “Why do I [X]? What is the job I’m getting done through [Y]?” Applying the JTBD frame introspectively may surprise you.

Applying Jobs to be Done to customer experience on the web.

“Way back when” we first built FullStory it was to solve an explicit job that we needed done: we needed to understand what users were doing on a site through high-fidelity session playback, down to the movement of the mouse.

That was only the beginning.

We soon realized that since we were already capturing all the data about user interactions on a web application, we could do other jobs, too.

  • We could do the job of visualizing aggregated, on-page user clicks — so we built Page Insights with Click Maps (Like heatmaps but with actionable clarity, that is, better!).
  • We could do the job of segmenting users by behaviors in order to better understand what job they are trying to do —FullStory users can now build on-the-fly marketing funnels based on specific, user-defined events with OmniSearch (e.g. find users who are referred by Google, add a product to their cart, and complete the sale).
  • We could do the job of finding where users are getting frustrated — so we started identifying frustration events. We call them rage clicks, error clicks, and dead clicks.
  • We could do the job of visualizing the data in aggregate — so we built easy-to-grok graphs that autobuild based on segments (We call them “Searchies”).

When it comes to the job of building better customer experiences on the web, there are many jobs to be done — whether it’s the jobs of designers, engineers, product managers, marketers, customer support.

We all have a lot of work to do to make the web a better place.

This post originally made for the FullStory blog. (Come find me there for regular bits like this!)

Further reading

  • JTBD has also made its way into a 2016 book called Competing Against Luck by Clayton Christensen. Also see The Innovator’s Dilemma
  • The average-driven, “one-size-fits-none” milkshake reminds us of the problem with averages
  • Everything Bagel 340 Calories, Dunkin’ Donuts ~600 calories, Snickers 250 calories, Banana ~100 calories, McDonald’s Vanilla Milkshake (M) 610 Calories

FullStory—I am here!

If you’ve been reading along lately, you picked up on the fact that last week was my last at Google.

And this week was my first at FullStory.

What is FullStory? How you answer that really depends on your job and how you use the tool. I’m not trying to be obtuse; it’s just that FullStory is an analytics (SaaS) platform that captures everything your users do on your website. Understood in its most basic form, FullStory allows you to watch (Literally! Like a DVR) how a user engaged with your site down to the mouse movements, clicks, pauses, everything.

You can mine user sessions for all sorts of reasons, whether they’re for product marketing managers, customer support, design, user experience (UX), user interface (UI), development (finding errors, fixing bugs), etc.

It’s pretty rad.

I began paying attention to FullStory way back in 2014. A couple Xooglers from Atlanta I’d kept up with were two of the three founders and I was enthusiastically watching to see what they were cooking up.

Fast forward to late 2015 and I started seriously inquiring about roles at FullStory, had a few conversations, and started imagining the possibilities. The timing wasn’t quite right then but all was kept on the backburner. Things quieted down for a bit though I think it stayed on the backburner until late 2016 when things started getting “serious.”

Now here I am.

I’m going to be handling content marketing. You could say my job title is FullStory-teller. I hope to do for FullStory a lot of what I did for a certain minimalist footwear site. I’m just getting started, but you’ll be able to follow along at blog.fullstory.com; also, if you’re not already there, add me on instagram and twitter (these are my personal accounts).

Very excited about the future here. There is just so much potential, excitement, and opportunities.

And if you have a website and care about making it better for whatever reason or whatever function, yeah, you should totally check out FullStory.

Justin Owings, Googler [Deprecated]

It’s been a shade under seven years working here at Google in Atlanta; the longest I’ve worked anywhere.

Today is my last day.

If you know me, you know I’ve been a Google fanboy for years, pushing Gmail on friends and family; getting on the Nexus (Android) bandwagon back in early 2010; owning Google Glass and embarrassing my wife (but impressing my kids); feeling a goofy kinship with Sergey Brin back when he wore Vibrams; and on and on. I’ve had a tribal pride in working at Google, and I’ll always be a card-carrying Xoogler.

While my work in Google was most commonly behind the scenes in sales, my legacy to Google Atlanta is as visible as it gets — a half-decent logo that adorns walls, t-shirts, and more (e.g. the adapted metal sign above; the image below; some other use-cases).

There’s so much I could share about working at Google: good, bad, and ugly. Perhaps in time I’ll dabble in sharing it all. For now, here’s a bit of good.

  • I felt lucky when Google paid me to spend seven weeks with my second daughter shortly after she was born; and later, again, when I spent thirteen weeks with my youngest son after he was born.
  • I felt lucky when Christmas came and it meant I got some new-fangled gadget, whether a phone, a tablet, or the ill-fated Sony Google TV (still works!).
  • I felt lucky to have worked at a place that values doing good within the world whether or not it helped the bottom line; where “don’t be evil” was a mantra that helped safeguard Google from the temptation to make questionable decisions in the name of “business.”
  • I felt lucky to work among people of the highest-caliber who challenged me to be better and grow.
  • I felt lucky to have had visionaries as leaders who could have just sat back and played it safe; instead, they made audacious bets about self-driving cars, AI, solving aging, VR/AR, delivery, bringing Internet to the remote places of the planet with balloons, and on and on.
  • I felt lucky to be able to say I was a Googler. I got to be a part of one of the most incredible companies in history …

… And I feel lucky even as I say “Goodbye, Google,” and go a new way at a young company that was founded by brilliant, incredible people I only know because I worked at Google.

Thanks, Larry and Sergey! It was a pleasure.

Now, to the future!

The Canary in the Coal Mine and Leaving Dysfunctional Groups

The expression “canary in a coal mine” originates from coal miners using canaries as a kind of early warning system. The miners would take the birds into the mine and periodically check-in on their status. The delicate canaries were more susceptible to gases like carbon monoxide, so if they suddenly stopped moving, miners would be alerted of dangerous air conditions.

Hence, the expression “canary in a coal mine” is an idiomatic way of talking about events that portend negative things to come.

Dysfunctional Families, Groups, and Organizations

A psychiatrist friend observed that with (truly) dysfunctional families, it’s the healthy members who leave.

Here’s the implied theory. If you are a healthy and functioning human being, there’s only so much dysfunction you can tolerate before you have to get out of that relationship.

I think you can take the idea further.

Let’s assume this is you. You’re in a dysfunctional family. Maybe you fight it or try to fix it. Maybe you’re successful. Maybe not. Eventually one of three things is going to happen.

  • You’re going to succumb to the dysfunction and change to conform to the family norm.
  • You’re going to reject it and leave the family.
  • The family is going to reject you.

These dynamics are not limited to families. They extend to just about any group or organization.

But it’s not easy to leave.

Leaving a dysfunctional group means we can’t ignore the ugly bits that have been, to some degree, a part of our identity. After all, we chose to be a part of that group (exception: family). The individuals in that group are, in a way, mirrors of us. If the group is dysfunctional are we similarly broken? While I don’t think that necessarily follows, it’s not fun to ask these questions.

Leaving is hard because it’s a decision riddled with self-doubt. It means making judgments about ourselves and people we care about. It’s made even harder because very often the individuals in these groups are good; perhaps they’re just caught up in the cage. We have real empathy for these friends.

Breaking free of the cage and leaving is hard.

It’s that hardness that makes leaving such a powerful signal that something might not be right.

Perhaps leavers are the canaries in the coal mine.

Casey Neistat and Success by Doing (Plus Stochasticity)

If you aren’t familiar with Casey Neistat, allow me to remedy the situation.

Casey Neistat is likely the most burgeoning YouTube star of 2016. Here’s his channel. I’m approaching a year having subscribed to his daily vlog videos and to my eye what Neistat is doing on YouTube is a testament to the democraticization of video content.

First a little context: Neistat has racked up over a billion video views and is likely to cross the 5 million subscriber mark sometime in the next few days. He’s 35 (a month younger than me), lives in NYC, and has been in film and video production for almost 15 years though he never went to school for it and got his start on an iMac/

You might have come across Casey’s work in the past. See: real-life Alladin/magic carpet in New York (he worked to produce this) or his Jan 2016, mid-NYC-blizzard snowboarding  the streets video set to “New York, New York.” For more background, take a watch on Reddit’s Formative Moment video on Casey Neistat.

For a classic Neistat video, watch this video of him retrieving a drone he lost on top of a building in New York. It showcases his wild use of cameras and general scrappiness with both his videos and his approach to life.

Just think about what he’s doing. Every single day he records a slew of content using a mix of DSLR cameras, handheld point and shoot cameras, drones, smartphones, and god knows what other equipment, bringing to life the adage that the best camera is the one you have with you. He takes all this content at the end of the day and then spends a few hours editing it down into a video that is less than 10 minutes.

In so many ways, Casey’s channel is a one-man reality TV show that is direct to viewer and without all the absurd drama that you’ve come to associate with “reality TV.” Neistat’s body of work is reality TV “IRL,” but unlike real life which is often boring, it’s been supercut into something fun to watch.

(It also helps that Neistat’s life is, actually, pretty fascinating, particularly as he has ascended into celebrity status, gets sent on trips around the world, and is almost a mascot for NYC.)

Bear in mind what’s not seen on camera — all the work and effort Neistat puts into getting the raw content that makes his daily vlogs visual treats. Note that you don’t usually see the cameras. Or think about how when you see a shot of Neistat walking or running “on scene” (a common shot is him entering his production studio, as seen from his desk): Casey had to do that very action at least twice — once to set up the camera and once to record the action. In other words, this “real life” video is manufactured. It’s deliberate. It’s not really “real” in the “your life just sorta unfolds” way and more real from the perspective of telling a story about life. It’s a story. Duh.

That Casey Neistat does all of this every day is a serious feat. Kudos to his dedication; he’s upleveled the conversation on YouTube (in the off chance you’re reading this, thanks!).

So about that stochasticity …

Right, so now that you’re familiar with Neistat and realize that he’s putting out solid work every day (each video is getting a million plus views), let’s talk about his viral successes.

I remember when Casey’s snowboarding video hit. I recall waking up and actually wondering, “I wonder how NYC is doing amidst this blizzard — I bet Neistat will do a video,” and (no joke) about 30 seconds later I saw the notification that he’d uploaded his snowboarding NYC video.

That video has received nearly 15 million views to date and got re-shared all over the web and picked up by all sorts of news stations. It was a big moment for Casey and got him a whole lot of attention and new subscribers.

It also spawned another wave of questions about how Casey creates viral videos. Not surprisingly, he’s vlogged about this subject. And like anyone who has had success, Casey has a few thoughts about how to create viral videos — things like tapping into the zeitgeist, timing, relevance, generality — he even made a diagram in that video:

Note the bottom right …
What’s refreshing about Neistat is his self-awareness about viral success — he wraps that diagram up with a statement:

The truth is I have no idea how or why the video goes viral.

Casey echos this sentiment some 240 videos later after his $21K First Class plane ticket video published about 10 days ago achieved 20 million views in ~7 days, bumping his subscriber base by about 500K subscribers. Mind that any YouTuber would kill for 5K subscribers.

That’s repeat success. So is Neistat a viral video machine or are his viral video hits just dumb luck?

It’s neither, and Neistat outright says as much. Neistat’s viral success is due to lots and lots of attempts, lots of everyday successes (most of his videos still achieved around a million views), and the occasional colossal blow-up.

And to borrow on Nassim Taleb, you can attribute Casey Neistat’s viral success to taking a stochastic approach to content creation. Casey noted in his “viral video secrets” video (the one with the diagram) the following:

I’ve gotten lucky and had a few viral hits beyond just this snowboarding one but I’ve also uploaded 310 movies in the last 305 days so if 2 of them or 1 of them has gone viral that’s less than 1 third of 1 percent of every movie I make so I don’t know what it is.

For most people, this rate of success might be a deterrent to even trying. But to someone like Casey Neistat — a real “doer” — it’s just the way to live life.

And that’s the takeaway. Expose yourself to upside success in life by writing a lot of options or buying a lot of lottery tickets — in the figurative sense — that is, by engaging in activities that you enjoy, that are hard, and that pay off by themselves but also have huge upside potential.

And really, that’s why I blog*.

* Yes, I’m trying to blog again. Been quite a hiatus and it’s not easy to get back but I’m trying!

Questioning daily defaults: what’s the job I need done?

Channeling Clayton Christensen’s Jobs-to-be-done frame, I’ve started thinking about my daily default decisions. What is the job I need done by [fill-in the blank]?

It’s a useful exercise.

  • I drink coffee and other caffeinated beverages: if the job I need done is mental alertness and waking up, what’s the best thing to hire for that job?
  • After getting the kids down for bed at night, I often want to watcha show on some streaming service (we don’t have cable), what’s the job I need done that has me turning to consuming video? Relaxing? Escaping the routine? Something else? How effective is my default st accomplishing that job?

That sort of thing.

It’s making me take an outside perspective on unquestioned decisions. Channeling John Gall’s observation that destiny is unquestioned assumptions (See John Gall and Systemantics):

The decision to become involved with a particular System should be made carefully, on the basis of a balanced judgment of one’s interests. One need not drift (or sail, or barge) into Systems uncritically: CHOOSE YOUR SYSTEMS WITH CARE Remember: DESTINY IS LARGELY A SET OF UNQUESTIONED ASSUMPTIONS

So true, so relevant to our daily routines! Giving me much food for thought and the impetus for changing my defaults. I am where I am because of the decisions I make things I do, every day, and every moment.

So if I want to get a job done, I need to hire the right solutions, and change my destiny by default.

Clayton Christensen’s Jobs-to-be-done Theory

Clayton Christensen (along with a few other co-authors) is soon releasing a book called Competing Against Luck that will go more in-depth on Christensen’s “Jobs-to-be-done theory,” which is a way to reframe product design and product selling away from fallacious, post ergo hoc propter hoc data and towards first principles.

Jobs-to-be-done (JTBD) is something Christensen cooked up at least a decade ago and the best way to grok the theory is to listen to Christensen tell the milkshake story. Take a listen below (Look past the the over-styling of the video):

Reflecting on the reasons people do the things they do rather than trying to come up with some complicated, aggregated story about certain demos doing certain things is a much more effective way to understand behavior.

In the world of marketing and advertising, I’m daily confronted with the approach that carving up people into segments is the way to understand customers. It works okay, at best, but necessarily paints with broad strokes, misses nuances left and right, and generally just feels a little half-baked. By comparison, understanding the “why” people do the things they do gets to the heart of the matter.

Even more, it often reveals hidden, underlying truths. That milkshakes make for good driving-to-work breakfast food is a surprising revelation you’d probably not guess.

Another example: we drive a Honda Odyssey as our family car. However, many of our family friends have opted to go the SUV route. Why? Big SUVs are generally inferior as a family vehicle to a mini-van in almost every way possible. The only catch is that mini-vans have large negative connotations to parents. Mini-vans aren’t “cool,” right? Parents, and I think particularly mothers, who drive mini-vans feel old and uncool driving them. They don’t want to identify with their own parents or feel like they’re not fun, anymore. SUVs somehow skirt this psychological problem*. Using JTBD, the SUV decision makes all the more sense: parents need to feel young and vibrant. Who cares if a van is more practical if it makes you feel old or tangibly represents how much your life pivots around your children? Even if it may be irrational, we tie up our identity in our vehicles, and our identity is paramount for our sense of self, and our sustained happiness.

SUVs make sense as a vehicle that satisfies the job parents need to be done — move the family around — but don’t harm my sense of self in the process!

JTBD feels like an extension of economic theories, which themselves are ways to frame and understand human behavior. I find reframing life — things I want, things my kids want, things I need to do for work, and more — using the question, “What is the job I need done here?” Is a useful exercise that can have surprising results and/or make sense of sometimes irrational-looking behaviors. JTBD reframing can be used to drive my own decisions or understand my own behavior. It’s surprising but I find I’m often making decisions for reasons that make sense but aren’t at the top level of my conscious thought.

I’m not unusual. Lots of people are doing the same thing. Human beings are complex!

Have you heard of this theory? I’d be curious if you can think of any examples of how JTBD makes sense of your life or your work. Let me know!

Aside: I don’t know how I made it this long without being aware of Clayton Christensen, Harvard business professor and author of The Innovator’s Dilemma (A book I’ve heard of but not read). Yet here I am only first hearing him speak a couple weeks ago via this Talk @ Google.

Christensen has a gentle demeanor in the way he speaks that exudes thoughtfulness, and the guy is clearly a thinker, having originated a solid handful of business theories. They are conveniently organized on his website here (That link is to Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation but see the left column at that link for more, including the one I’m fixated on at the moment).

*I often think how absurd it is to pick an obviously inferior vehicle for the job-to-be-done of getting your young family around town like a Suburban over the swiss-army of family vehicles like an Odyssey for the purpose of appearing “cool” — you can’t be cool when your grimy rugrats fall over themselves trying to get in and out of a Suburban. SUVs don’t magically erase the real reason you feel old, which is that you have young kids!

The System is Down

(Via StrongBad / Homestar Runner)
I read a book about five months back by John Gall called Systemantics: The Systems Bible. The book goes through a derived (by the author) set of principles or axioms about systems of all types, why they get created, how/why they don’t work, and much, much more.

When it comes to creating systems, you have to start somewhere — the reason systems get built in the first place — if I recall, Gall calls this the “Primal Scenario.”

It behooves us all to etch it into our brains:


Sometimes obvious things need to be stated, and channeling Elon Musk’s derivation-from-first-principles approach to learning, I think Gall’s point here is all-encompassing. Everything struggles to do the thing it wants to do/is designed to do and only succeeds in part while also failing and spawning problems.

Acceptance that you can’t escape the fundamental truth of the primal scenario: that your best case scenario to solve any given problem in life, your own habits, work, teams, relationships, or whatever will only work imperfectly at best and is very much more likely to both fail and cause new confounding problems.

It’s the Primal Scenario.

And the default state of dynamic existence doesn’t mean you don’t try to solve the problems or fix the existing flaws through building new systems, it just means that you will struggle and toil at doing so, expecting otherwise is naive, often reckless, and sometimes even dangerous.

Often prosaic, Gall’s governing laws were just what I was looking for to make sense of various organizational problems I was experiencing in my dayjob. I’ll spare you the details (though I’m sure close friends have heard me speak to them ad nauseum). Suffice to say that the day to day happenings in any large company are highly governed by the laws of systems.

I can’t recommend at least reading all the axioms once. That said here are a few favorites (Gall often wrote in ALL CAPS — these are direct quotes form the book):

  • NEW SYSTEMS MEAN NEW PROBLEMS When a system is set up to accomplish some goal, a new entity has come into being—the system itself. No matter what the “goal” of the system, it immediately begins to exhibit systems-behavior, that is, to act according to the general laws that govern the operation of all systems. Now the system itself has to be dealt with. Whereas before there was only the Problem—such as warfare between nations, or garbage collection—there is now an additional universe of problems associated with the functioning or merely the presence of the new system.
  • Systems are like babies: once you get one, you have it. They don’t go away. On the contrary, they display the most remarkable persistence. They not only persist; they grow. And as they grow, they encroach.
  • THE SYSTEM ALWAYS KICKS BACK (Justin: the idea is that the system will fight change)
  • THE REAL WORLD IS WHAT IS REPORTED TO THE SYSTEM —or, in the world of Diplomacy: IF IT ISN’T OFFICIAL, IT HASN’T HAPPENED (Justin: anyone in a large organization with managed metrics will see this as meaning the only truth is that which is reported by the system; alternatively, “IF THE SYSTEM SAYS IT HAPPENED, IT HAPPENED”
  • SYSTEMS ATTRACT SYSTEMS-PEOPLE (Justin: you know, like middle management types! Michael Scott anyone?)
  • IF SOMETHING ISN’T WORKING, DON’T KEEP DOING IT. DO SOMETHING ELSE INSTEAD (Justin: Fun fact: John Gall was a lifelong pediatrician [seriously, how bizarre, right?] and he led seminars on hacking parenting. This is one of his core ideas — that if some parenting strategy to elicit behaviors out of your kids isn’t working, try something else!)
  • Systems are seductive. They promise to do a hard job faster, better, and more easily than you could do it by yourself. But if you set up a System, you are likely to find your time and effort now being consumed in the care and feeding of the System itself. New Problems are created by its very presence.[a.] Once set up, it won’t Go Away; it Grows and Encroaches.[b.] It begins to do Strange and Wonderful Things[c.] and Breaks Down in Ways You Never Thought Possible.[d.] It Kicks Back, Gets In The Way and Opposes Its Own Proper Function.[e.] Your own perspective becomes distorted by being In The System.[f.] You become anxious and Push On It To Make It Work.[g.] Eventually you come to believe that the misbegotten product it so grudgingly delivers is What You Really Wanted all the time[h.] . At that point, Encroachment has become complete. You have become absorbed. You are now a Systems-person.
  • The System must not be built too tight nor wound up too tightly or it will (1) seize up (2) peter out, or (3) fly apart: LOOSE SYSTEMS LAST LONGER AND FUNCTION BETTER (Justin: My current org, which is matrixed, is more of a tight/rigid system; this one hits close to home)

Gall talks a bit about complex systems — that they rarely work and that designed complex systems will never work. He observes that if you find a working complex system, it evolved from simple systems that work. Personal experience seems to validate Gall’s observation both in that I’ve lived (am living in) through pretty complex systems that were top-down designed that work very poorly; while the ones built from the ground up that evolved organically work the best (while still having problems).

I could go on, but I wanted to share this here for a long time. If you’ve read this book or read on via the link above, let me know what you think!

Live Experiences vs. Recordings — What We Pay to Engage Attention

David D. Friedman recently posed the question of whether or not YouTube recordings of his lectures were adequate substitutes for the live experience. DDF wrote:

Quite often, when I give a talk, someone records it, often as video, and webs it. That raises a question relevant to what talks I give: Is watching the video a reasonably close substitute for attending the talk? …

This links to a question that has puzzled me for a long time. One common pattern in schooling is the mass lecture—a professor speaking to an audience in the hundreds with students taking notes.  In the fourteenth century, that made a lot of sense as a low cost way of spreading knowledge, but why did it survive the invention of the printing press?

For me, this question firmly centers itself upon the subject of attention, and how much attention people are willing to give a recorded experience that is given away for free (“Free” being simply defined, ignoring non-trivial opportunity costs of consuming the content).

Many chimed in with thoughts on the matter, but I didn’t find anyone directly tackling the issue from the perspective of engaged attention. These days when our attention comes at a heavy price (something I will write more on), engagement is everything.

So I left the comment below.

… I think it’s all about attention. More specifically, it’s about how much I am willing to engage in a live experience vs. a recorded experience. There are a few things to unpack here:

  • Upfront costs. Almost all live experiences have non-trivial costs associated with them. You have to get to class. You have to pay tuition. You have to adjust to the environment (that is, listen up, direct focus). When we “pay” for a live experience, we are more likely to feel like we’re wasting our time if we don’t pay attention. In a way, note-taking is arguably yet another way to force paid attention. I don’t think I’ve ever taken notes while watching a recorded lecture or talk.
  • Perceived value of a live experience. Live experiences are necessarily more unique rare than recorded ones that can be watched at will (at low cost). Mind, this isn’t binary: a 3x/week live mass lecture to 500 students will have a lower perceived value than a one-off lecture by a guest speaker to the same 500 students; or 3x/week lecture given to 20 students. Every scenario you can imagine will signal things about value. Can a lecture that is free (b/c it’s a recording) really be worth watching? Of course! But the signals to interpret value are going to be derived from other aspects — views received, expected content, production quality, vouched value by others who’ve consumed it, and so on and so forth.
  • Optionality of the live experience. There must be some non-zero potential value of attending a live experience. This can be the opportunity to ask questions of the presenter, the chance of meeting other like-minded people in attendance, and the value of being able to discuss the lecture with other attendees when the content is fresh on their minds.
  • The value of interpersonal connection. This one is probably a little related to perceived value, but what happens when a lecturer can look you in the eye? How does that engage your attention? Related: video conferencing with one other person is incredibly less enjoyable/valuable (to me) that in person communications.
  • What else? I’m sure there are other reasons we engage our attention more with a live experience as compared to a recording.

Today with the sky-rocketing volume of “free” content, I find I’m resorting to many new signals as to the value of content and whether or not it’s worth my attention. Recorded experiences are great, but they suffer from harder to read signals as to quality. To make matters worse, when I consume this content, the medium of consumption makes it trivial to abandon the recording (either literally closing it or letting my mind wander off).

All said, I wonder to what extent better VR will mitigate some of these negative (and in my mind, undesirable) effects of recorded content by simply engaging more senses and increasing the price of shifting my attention away (due to having to take “goggles” and headphones off).

Dunbar’s Number, Broken Social Networks, and Back Scratches

Monkeys grooming each other in India.
A photo I took of monkeys grooming each other in India circa 2008.

My brother passed on an article in The New Yorker from a couple weeks back titled The Limits of Friendship. It’s an exposition on Oxford anthropologist Robin Dunbar’s discovery that humans organize into social groups that tend to range from 100-200 people, with the average—150—being an optimal rule of thumb. This is known as Dunbar’s number.

The discovery was made through observing the correlation between the size of an animal’s frontal lobe whereby the larger the frontal lobe (or smaller), the larger the social group size for that animal. Applying this understanding to human brains, “Judging from the size of an average human brain, the number of people the average person could have in her social group was a hundred and fifty.”

Here’s more on the number (emphasis added):

The Dunbar number is actually a series of them. The best known, a hundred and fifty, is the number of people we call casual friends—the people, say, you’d invite to a large party. (In reality, it’s a range: a hundred at the low end and two hundred for the more social of us.) From there, through qualitative interviews coupled with analysis of experimental and survey data, Dunbar discovered that the number grows and decreases according to a precise formula, roughly a “rule of three.”

So the 150 (an average) cuts down to 50 and then 15 and 5. I suppose you can’t have 1.66 people, but then again maybe you can?  It’s an interesting question given most of us (present company included) adhere to long-term monogamous relationships.

These optimal human social group sizes are seen ini average modern hunter-gatherer societies (148.4), military company size from the Roman Empire to modern times (with companies having sub-groups that also meet the Dunbar rules).

Applying Dunbar’s number to me.

When it comes to my day-to-day networks, I work with about 17-20 people on a week-in, week-out basis, which feels about right in that I’ve a place that supports that group in a meaningful way, but it also leaves me a little stretched and I can’t (and don’t) have the closeness and support at that group level. Cut by Dunbar’s number again, my inner “work” circle is around three people.

It’s harder to create tiers of my friends, but I’d count about four or five people in my closest circle. It’s hard to expand that circle meaningfully.

Sidebar. I’m reading Peter Thiel’s Zero to One, which at about halfway done (and a short couple hundred pages), is well worth your time. Therein, Thiel talks about your coworkers and how you should work with people you like. He made the following insight, which is powerful in it’s implications:

Since time is your most valuable asset, it’s odd to spend it working with people who don’t envision any long-term future together. If you can’t count durable relationships among the fruits of your time at work, you haven’t invested your time well—even in purely financial terms.

I’m just going to leave that there.

Dunbar’s number and the brokenness of social networks.

I’ve got about 235 Facebook friends, 633 LinkedIn connections, 800 Twitter followers (I’m only following 90 or so), and 800 people in my Google+ circles.

What a bunch of meaningless numbers. #Amiright?

I’ve talked about digital isolation at length before (the last post on this blog over a year and a half ago), but the curated social network is obviously broken. Don’t we all know this? I’d eagerly hear any arguments that “Social Networks” as we know them grow meaningful relationships. The interactions they foster (aside from the 1:1 or 1:few interactions) are ephemeral and lack depth. While it costs almost nothing to “like” someone’s post on Facebook (or comment), we expend time and effort in against those types of interactions that in aggregate is high-cost and low-return.

Is there a better solution? Probably. And thoughtful minds have been trying to find it for at least the last 5-10 years.

The New Yorker article had something to say on this front, as well, via Dunbar:

There’s no question, Dunbar agrees, that networks like Facebook are changing the nature of human interaction. “What Facebook does and why it’s been so successful in so many ways is it allows you to keep track of people who would otherwise effectively disappear,” he said. But one of the things that keeps face-to-face friendships strong is the nature of shared experience: you laugh together; you dance together; you gape at the hot-dog eaters on Coney Island together. We do have a social-media equivalent—sharing, liking, knowing that all of your friends have looked at the same cat video on YouTube as you did—but it lacks the synchronicity of shared experience. It’s like a comedy that you watch by yourself: you won’t laugh as loudly or as often, even if you’re fully aware that all your friends think it’s hysterical. We’ve seen the same movie, but we can’t bond over it in the same way.

This massive shortcoming of digital social interactions harkens back to the inability to “be there” in virtual space the way we can be for others in real-space. Even still, “being there” in the sense of being present to others (and not distracted-while-in-others-presence by engaging our devices every spare moment) is being eroded as digital grabs our attention in the hundreds of spare moments throughout our day.

At least as far as relationships are concerned, some of those spare moments were ways to be present to others—gifting friends and family your time, even if they waste it.

Perhaps we should be grooming each other.

On an even deeper level, there may be a physiological aspect of friendship that virtual connections can never replace. This wouldn’t surprise Dunbar, who discovered his number when he was studying the social bonding that occurs among primates through grooming. Over the past few years, Dunbar and his colleagues have been looking at the importance of touch in sparking the sort of neurological and physiological responses that, in turn, lead to bonding and friendship. “We underestimate how important touch is in the social world,” he said. With a light brush on the shoulder, a pat, or a squeeze of the arm or hand, we can communicate a deeper bond than through speaking alone. “Words are easy. But the way someone touches you, even casually, tells you more about what they’re thinking of you.”

Dunbar already knew that in monkeys grooming activated the endorphin system. Was the same true in humans? In a series of studies, Dunbar and his colleagues demonstrated that very light touch triggers a cascade of endorphins that, in turn, are important for creating personal relationships.

Who doesn’t like to have their back scratched? Serious question.

There’s something to being touched. Who doesn’t take note when a coworker pats you on the shoulder? We register touch in a meaningful way and while I can’t help but think of tapping the “like” button as a digital touch, I doubt highly that receiving likes sets in motion the bonding/endorphin response Dunbar sees with monkeys grooming.

Indeed, a firm handshake is still the common greeting between people when they physically engage each other, but a handshake isn’t sustained. Nor are handshakes common beyond initial formalities. Just thinking back on the last few days, I’ve hardly shaken anyone’s hand. Handshakes simply aren’t that common.

Meanwhile you’ve got hugs. I love a good hug as much as the next guy and while I can’t put my finger on a specific source, Google seems to support hugs as a source of oxytocin, which is another socially-dependent, “connecting” hormone.

On the other hand, there’s hand holding. I’m reminded of one of the more endearing things I’ve experienced through getting to know Indian culture, which is that male friends often hold hands. This has resulted in times when I’ve sat down next to my father-in-law and held his hand. It’s hard to express just how surprisingly comforting that specific sort of engagement is.

We forget our base animal nature at our own peril. I don’t know how we get back to grooming-as-a-way-to-connect with others. I do think I’ve seen brushing my daughter’s hair as a way to connect with them.

And then there’s always a good back scratch, right?

So what do we do?

In our age of solving the world’s problems through digital efforts, I’m left wondering how we can get back to something physical in the way we engage with others. Physical touch seems like a missing ingredient in the equation. A rapidly evaporating ingredient is being physically “there” for others.

Are there ways to digitally solve this problem? While the Apple watch offers a way to share a “touch” through haptic feedback, I’m skeptical of this as the solution we need.

Got any other ideas?