04 10 / 2012
25 7 / 2012
“You are what you read.” And since reading Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit, I cannot help but see all behavior change — whether individual, interpersonal, or organizational — as a matter of habit (re)engineering.
As BJ Fogg asserts in his Behavior Model, “three elements must converge at the same moment for a behavior to occur: Motivation, Ability, and Trigger” — and I think these map nicely to Duhigg’s dissection of a habit into triggers, routines and rewards.
Understanding how to create and manipulate habits interests me on two levels. First: self-improvement. Next week, I’m participating in BJ Fogg’s 3 Tiny Habits program to kickstart 3 new habits that I want to integrate into my everyday life (for starters blogging, meditation and tracking my finances) by breaking them into simple beginnings and anchoring these simple actions to already existing habits/behaviors (like taking the shuttle). I will report back on that process and experience!
But habits really excite me in the context of organizational transformation.
Cultivating new good habits is easier than breaking bad habits and turning them into good ones. I’m currently in the process of documenting how I facilitated a team of volunteer engineering activists to make developer testing a ubiquitous part of Google’s engineering culture by focusing testing as a habit. While we didn’t have Duhigg’s lexicon at the time, the programs that had the biggest impact on transforming engineers’ development practices — Testing on the Toilet (shout out in The Washington Post!), a new hire orientation testing lecture + lab, and a program in which teams were assigned a mentor to help them level up their testing practices — were the ones addressed the when (trigger), why (reward) and how (routine) of developer testing… and provided a community to support and reinforce the adoption of these new testing habits.
But breaking and changing an existing bad habit is much more difficult. “Habit scientists” (as I call them) argue, you can change the routine of a habit, but you cannot change the trigger or reward… the cue + motivation of a habit will always exist. You need to analyze an organization’s behavior in terms of this anatomy of a habit loop so you can identify the triggers and rewire the habit routines in order to achieve the same rewards.
Just identifying organizational habits poses a challenge in itself. When I reflect on Google’s habits, here are a few company-wide habits that come to mind, but they barely scratch the surface!:
- We define OKRs (Objectives & Key Results) at the individual, team and company-wide level every quarter to provide an overarching direction and sense of purpose.
- We tend to email instead of talking to each other face-to-face — even if our question is for the person sitting next to us.
- We meet as a company every Friday at 4:30 to review the week’s launches, welcome the week’s Nooglers, learn about a different product/team/tool within the organization and ask leadership our most topical questions.
- We all eat lunch on campus every day — usually with our teams — instead of leaving the office to eat at a restaurant.
- Data drives our decisions so we collect data all the time to better understand our products and services (internally and externally) — from sending Google-wide surveys to understand the zeitgeist of the company and surface our most pressing problems, to collecting metrics on our products about 7-day active users and clickthrough rates.
In a large company (even a small one, I imagine), each team has their own layer upon layer of individual and group habits that contribute to (or hinder) how they get stuff done. Identifying all of these habits — and then changing them — is hard.
But that’s how Paul O’Neill led Alcoa into its renaissance. As Duhigg narrates in The Power of Habit (read the book for the full story — it is worth the quick read!) O’Neill focused the entire company on making Alcoa the safest company in America. His proclaimed goal: zero injuries. It turns out focusing on that level of worker safety demanded the company to not only re-examine — and alter! — their production process + reporting chain, but also dramatically transformed their patterns of communication. What started as a way to report safety hazards became a way to transmit new ideas and consequently fostered innovation. Worker safety was Alcoa’s keystone habit — a habit that played out a domino effect on other habits, leading to total transformation.
I imagine that is what Marissa Mayer has ahead of her… In fact, I would love to see Charles Duhigg write a piece about what Mayer can learn from O’Neill — and others like coach Tony Dungy — when it comes to leading a team to victory through habit change.
Just today I was asked to bring the marketing, product and developer relations teams together to create a global x-product calendar of the top developer conferences we care about most throughout the year. Yes, of course this needs to exist. In fact, I’m shocked that the Developer Relations team has survived without it for the last 6 years. But while it is an obvious solution to implement, it seems to me that it is a symptom of a much larger problem/need… One that requires better visibility, communication and collaboration across all of our developer products.
So I wonder… is there a keystone habit we can rewire across all the developer product teams that will lead to a rippling sea of new routines that will force us to communicate and collaborate in a radically different way?
18 7 / 2012
*Seeing* and *hearing* are the core senses of improv — and design thinking — that enable creation.
In improv, there is no script so you cannot predict what will happen. Every brilliant improvisor has a strong point of view… they immediately become a character with real emotional needs, desires, obstacles and weaknesses. But I assure you no improvisor actually plays the scene they think they are going to play when they first step on stage or say their first word. Why? Other improvisors! You cannot just play the scene in your head, because every other improvisor on that stage is coming from a different point of view and wants something from you.
You can’t just step on stage without an idea or an intention, because then the scene won’t go anywhere. You need to want something. In traditional theatrical scriptwork, you analyze a script and break it into Objectives, Obstacles, Tactics and Beats — a beat is when you decide to change tactics to get what you want. In improv, since there is no script, you need to build a foundation fast. We call it CROW: Character, Relationship, Objective, Where. Once you establish that, you can build a story together.
You can walk on stage thinking in your mind that you are a Queen about to assume the throne and another improvisor will call you “mom”… Or you may be about to pull out a ring to propose to your girlfriend, but another actor sees it as a gun and puts their hands up (or drops to the floor dead!). Both of these original scenarios can still happen, but both introduced new information that totally changed the scene and your relationship to it (and in both situations, this other interpretation/perspective has made a scene a little more interesting!). If you don’t hear (“mom”) or see (the person react to the gun), you won’t be in the same scene creating something *together*… When all improvisors are truly present and in the moment and have their eyes and ears open to what is around them, one powerful story can emerge. That’s when magic happens.
I think this is analogous to building a product and a team. Every great entrepreneur has a problem they want to solve or a solution they want to build. That problem or solution drives them to create a company. This strong point of view is critical — it is their mission. But the problem I often observe is that the product team then builds what is in their head without honestly seeing and hearing their user.
Sure, they may do user experience research to gather information about what the users “want” and “need” but I often think they hear what they want to hear. They are listening for the information that tells them they are building the right product/tool… but they are missing the information that introduces a new perspective and helps them make the tool more compelling, usable and interesting. (Personally, I think a scene of a mom confiding in, consoling or fighting with her son the moment she is about to be crowned Queen, or a boyfriend down on one knee accidentally pulling a gun out of his jacket and pointing it as his girlfriend when he meant to get the ring are far more interesting!)
But seeing and hearing what a user wants and needs isn’t easy. Later I’ll share some interesting techniques friends at Google are developing to get into the streets and capture real-world inspiration to inform their product teams… But the first step is finding the right people to observe.
Look for extremes. You don’t want to design for the average user… that will lead to a bland product. Instead, find the people on the edge who really suffer from — or excel at — the problem you are trying to solve. They either need or can inform your product the most.
Let’s say your mission is to design an app to help people track how they spend their time so they can ultimately be more productive, happy and successful. Then here are a few initial ideas for who you should try to understand and get inspiration from:
- A CEO who is about to have her first child (cough cough, Marissa Mayer)
- A young student athlete training for the Olympics
- A single mom who needs to work multiple jobs to provide for her family
- A freelance web designer who needs to find work, manage their clients and build websites
- A chef/restaurateur who manages a restaurant enterprise in addition to working in the kitchen of the flagship restaurant every night
- A dancer who needs to balance a job, go to classes to work on their technique, and perform around the world
- An Executive Admin for an SVP at a Fortune 500 company
- A professional writer who is simultaneously writing a book, publishing articles for periodicals, maintaining a blog and giving live interviews/presentations
Those are just the first 8 extremes that came to mind as I focused on this problem for the last 10 minutes… Would love to hear your examples of extremes who could speak to this given challenge!
I believe that the entrepreneur and his/her product team will likely build a much more engaging product if they see, hear and respond to these extreme users like improvisors. If they are listening, they will hear new information from these users that may shift the way they see their own product (sometimes subtly, sometimes drastically) and they will build something all that more meaningful.
03 5 / 2012
Last July, I heard Geoffrey West speak at the Long Now seminar series about “Why Cities Keep on Growing, Corporations Always Die, and Life Gets Faster.” His scientific research on “Cities, Scaling and Sustainability” at the Santa Fe Institute reveals that cities are superlinear — meaning that as a city scales, so does its innovation and efficiency (as West measures in gas stations, roads and the socioeconomic behavior of the city). Contrast this with corporations, which — like humans — may experience “hockey stick” growth, but inevitably ossify and die. Just like the human body, the very system that gives you energy wears out by trying to keep you alive. Economies of scale triumph over innovation. Profits decrease systematically per capita as sales remain constant and it can no longer be sustained.
What is so different between cities and corporations?, West asks. One answer I loved: cities tolerate crazies, companies do not. Cities also continually bring in new people and new ideas, and with that offer a continuous flow and opening of opportunities.
West asks a question I asked myself as I experimented with ways to nurture the grass-roots innovation culture and ecosystem in Engineering at Google: how can we design companies more like cities? With a previous life as an Urban Studies major — and a dogeared copy of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” as my Bible — it is no surprise that I was inspired and influenced by Jane Jacobs’ organic, diverse and chaotic approach to the city as I worked on a team to create communities, programs and environments to bring different kinds of people together and give them a laboratory to play, experiment, learn and fail.
But that *same* week as the Geoffrey West talk at Long Now, Google retired Google Labs — an artifact and symbol of our once bottom-up approach to experimentation. (Interesting note: West cautioned that companies that cut R&D often run into trouble… they rely on innovation by acquisition instead of from the inside.) The days of beta Labs launches and a “let a thousand flowers bloom” approach to new product development were over and we were now going to focus on focus. Larry declared it time to put “more wood behind fewer arrows” and reorganized the company around a few core product areas led by appointed “decision makers.”
I can’t help but wonder: is Larry Page the Robert Moses to my Jane Jacobs? Is the death of Labs + the birth of Taylor‘ian efficiency the organizational equivalent of a ten-lane highway cutting through Greenwich Village and SoHo?
Yes, we are all moving in the same direction and possibly at a higher velocity (time will tell if the destination lives up to its promise). I will also add that polish + a more human approach to design now prevail in our products over our historic scrappiness + sterile machine-like aesthetic… but how will these changes regarding how we run the company disrupt our environment, distort our perspective and impact our culture? And how will that influence the products we build and the people we hire to build them?
I know companies need to evolve and I embrace — welcome! invite! — change. I don’t mean to glorify the past or be nostalgic for the “belle époque” of what was once Silicon Valley’s darling. I applaud Larry’s courage for not holding onto what was and shepherding Google into what he believes it can be. But I also think there is more to innovation than clear + crazy ambitious goals and the world’s best engineers.
A company is not a machine; it is a living, breathing ecosystem. I think the old Google resembled Jacobs’ Greenwich Village — crowded, colorful, diverse and bottom-up. I wonder if the “cleaning up” of Google into a more efficient grid-like city is going to facilitate the same kinds of serendipitous collisions. As Steven Johnson so eloquently illustrates in Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History Of Innovation (must watch: 4 minute illustrated preview), the biggest ideas seldom come from lone inventors… rather, innovation is born and thrives when diverse groups of people and ideas collide. And the next billion dollar idea rarely starts off as a billion dollar idea. Just as Jacobs noticed the threat of over-designed urban redevelopments, I’m starting to notice a Google segregated into distinct neighborhoods where people no longer play on the sidewalks or hang out on the stoop or bump into weak ties from other neighborhoods and I worry that we are no longer in an environment where small ideas can be born, mature and evolve into big ideas.
I’m currently reading — and loving! — Jonah Lehrer’s newest book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, and I look forward to distilling the lessons and recombining them with the next book in my queue, Tina Seelig’s inGenius: Unleashing Creative Potential.
In the meantime, enjoy this short and sweet interview between Lehrer and Richard Florida (of The Rise and Fall of the Creative Class!). It focuses on the relationship between creativity and cities and not surprisingly celebrates our beloved Jacobs. :)
16 4 / 2011
I don’t remember life without a computer (I was born the same year as our dear Macintosh, after all), and have had an email address for as long as I could read and type. I carry an iPhone and a Blackberry in my purse (yes, I’m the worst Googler ever), and my laptop and Kindle can usually be found close by. I even sent out a birth announcement for my pink iPod Mini named Bubblegum — the first of its species! — complete with a picture of me swaddling her in her perfect Apple packaging.
All this to say: I’m a wired Millennial who has grown up with my feet on the ground and my head in the cloud. So my rebellion — or maybe it is just balance — is to spend hours of labor and obsessive thoughts making the most simplest of things of the most simplest of ingredients, which existed even before Miss Ada Lovelace: bread and jam.
I love the magic of combining flour and water or fruit, sugar and heat. My kitchen transforms into a laboratory, with sour sweet cultures bubbling and rising in jars, and sugary berries sweating into liquids and boiling and foaming into jams.
I keep meaning to read Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking, because I know it will provide the scientific framework for understanding what is actually happening and why. In the meantime, the Tartine Bread and Blue Chair Jam cookbooks are my bibles.
Ladies and gentlemen, I now present my project from last night (what better way to spend a Friday night when home and sick?!): Strawberry balsamic black pepper jam… a photo journey from fruit to toast, starring Alba organic strawberries and my beloved Mauviel copper preserving pan.
16 4 / 2011
When I was little I had my own hell-like treasure chests known infamously as the bins. Well, let this blog be my bins in the cloud. Instead of doll parts, scratch-and-sniff stickers, plastic beads and my little ponies, I hope to cram this blog with any articles to read, videos to watch, links to follow, things to buy, dishes to make, restaurants to try, and resources I for some reason predict will come in handy for my future self (my one loyal reader besides mom and dad!).
Goodbye, future perfect blog; hello, my tendency toward the eclectic.