Ben Horowitz – The Hard Thing About Hard Things

This is a great cut-the-crap book about management and building a company. It’s most relevant to the the tech world, but there are plenty of gems here that are relevant to anyone – he’s especially good on shaping your culture (hint: yoga at work is not your organisational culture).

Here’s the introduction:

Every time I read a management or self-help book, I find myself saying “That’s fine, but that wasn’t really the hard thing about the situation.”

The hard thing isn’t setting a big, hairy, audacious goal. The hard thing is laying people off when you miss the big goal.

The hard thing isn’t hiring great people. The hard thing is when those “great people” develop a sense of entitlement and start demanding unreasonable things.

The hard thing isn’t setting up an organizational chart. The hard thing is getting people to communicate within the organization that you just designed.

The hard thing isn’t dreaming big. The hard thing is waking up in he middle of the night in a cold sweat when your dream turns into a nightmare.

The problem with these books is that they attempt to provide a recipe for challenges that have no recipes. There’s no recipe for really complicated, dynamic situations. There’s no recipe for building a high-tech company; there’s no recipe for leading a group of people out of trouble; there’s no recipe for making hit songs; there’s no recipe for running for president … and there’s no recipe for motivating people when your business has turned to crap.

That’s the hard thing about hard things: there is no formula for dealing with them.

Nonetheless, there are many bits of advice and experience that can help with the hard things.

I do not attempt to present a formula in this book. Instead, I present my story and the difficulties that I have faced.

I share my experiences in the hope of providing clues and inspiration for others who find themselves in the struggle to build something out of nothing.

Ben Horowitz – The Hard Thing About Hard Things

Highly recommend.

The soft option

Your desire to be generous to others is a great motivator to excellence: if you’re serious about ensuring that the externalities of your project are consistently positive, you’re going to need to be doubly good at what you do.

You need emotional energy and time to spare to listen well, to be gracious under pressure, to be the kind of employer or customer that helps your team or partners to do their best work.

It takes discipline to do this kind of emotional labour day in, day out. You need to be clear about what you’re doing and how and why, plan for it, and be deliberate about doing it consistently. You need to find ways to articulate your values to people inside and outside your project.

You need to be hard-headed about being soft-hearted.

Externalities

We’re familiar with the externalities of industrial production and consumption. They’re fairly predictable, and often visible. Even air pollution, the silent killer, is usually visible when it happens, before the poison spreads. It’s a perfect example of a negative externality – something put into the world that everyonepays for, not just the producer or the consumer.

What are the externalities of your project, program or product? What invisible outputs do you have?

  • What does your way of working with users, customers or clients say that your words leave out? How do they see you seeing them? Do they leave feeling smaller, more pressured, less competent – or with a greater belief in their ability to get better and to make a difference? (As you teach that vital knowledge and share those crucial skills, what else are you teaching?)

  • As you manage your team, how do they feel when they leave the office? What do they take home with them? What are your externalities for their families, friends and neighbourhoods?

    • What about your suppliers – the people who serve you as you serve others. What externalities do you have for the people in the photocopy shop, the electrician who comes to the office, or for your cleaners?

  • What about your suppliers – the people who serve you as you serve others. What externalities do you have for the people in the photocopy shop, the electrician who comes to the office, or for your cleaners?

Not polluting – ‘do no evil’ – isn’t nearly enough.

Education for the future: Key tools

Here are some tools that don’t go out of date:

  • Tools for thinking, learning and understanding (the tools that help you acquire new tools);
  • Tools for communicating and teaching (the tools that help you find and enlist others in your work, and help them to learn new tools);
  • Tools for planning, organising and leading (tools that enable you to work effectively with others);
  • Tools for making new tools (all of these tools fall into this category, but it applies to more technical skills too, from using a hammer to building a website).

Seth Godin: freelancing and the hard work of being an entrepreneur

Freelancers get paid when they work. Using our own fingers, our own skills, we do the work. So when I’m making a podcast, it’s me. When I’m writing, it’s me. When I’m giving a speech, it’s me. We get paid when we work and that’s the only time we get paid.

Entrepreneurs, on the other hand, build something bigger than themselves, they build assets. If you’re an entrepreneur and you’re busy hiring the most easily available, best qualified and cheapest person to do every job… it means you’re hiring yourself. And if you’re hiring yourself to do all the jobs, there’s one job you’re not doing, and that’s the job of the CEO. Of the person who figures out how to build something bigger than yourself.

So the hard work of being an entrepreneur is hiring someone to do every single job that can be done by someone who’s not you. It’s a totally different way of being in the world.


Seth Godin – Akimbo: Math Class is Hard

See also: The Akimbo Workshops: Freelancer or Entrepreneur?
The Freelancer’s Workshop
The Bootstrapper’s Workshop

Listen to the technology: Kevin Kelly and the giant copy machine

Technology often has built in biases, certain ways that it wants to be used. So the internet is the largest copy machine in the world by nature. It’s inherent in the thing. Anything that can be copied it that touches it will be copied.

So don’t fight that – work with it. Work with the fact that copies are promiscuous and it’st just going to go everywhere, it’s a superconductor for copies. You can’t battle against that, you have to say “okay, we can see how it is.”

Within the first four or five years it was clear that this was the way it was going to be… can you imagine if the music industry had accepted that from the front? It would have been amazing. They’re just coming around to it now, but [imagine] how far ahead they would have been if they’d just said “okay, this is inevitable, this copy thing. We’re just going to try to work with it. There’s thing to adjust, but let’s accept it.”


Kevin Kellya16z podcast: Not If, But How – When Technology is Inevitable

Further reading: The Technium: Better Than Free – 8 ‘generatives’ to thrive in a world of free copies.

See also:

Cohort

Seth Godin talks quite a lot about cohorts: “The people who get you. The ones who have been through it with you. Who see you.” An emphasis on peer-relationships is one of the defining features of his highly rated and very-low-drop-out-rated online workshops.

He’s got me thinking again about the value of a group of people doing similar work, with similar levels of experience. These are people – ‘fellow travellers‘ – who can relate to your struggles, share what they know, encourage you to keep going, push you to get put there and do better work. By turns they might be sounding-boards, collaborators, mentors, sympathetic ears, or champions of your work.

Where’s your cohort?

It’s relatively easy to find them among peers when your training for something – in school, on a course (although I’m agnostic about finding them on an online course), in your time in the army (!), or in the trenches doing your job. When I was teaching, colleagues at about the same stage of their careers were definitely my cohort.

But having a good cohort becomes harder if you move around, or as you start to manage and lead – by default there will be fewer ‘people like us’ around, and there are fewer natural opportunities to meet. Maintaining a cohort becomes something that you need to do deliberately by seeking people out and having conversations, by asking questions, looking for opinions and advice, and sharing resources with people who find them helpful.

Five Questions and – slowly – the Driverless Crocodile podcast are a way of doing this.

That saying (wherever it’s from) might be right: “… if you want to go far, go together.” Find friends for your work.

Learning through use: Kevin Kelly on technology finding its way

I’m a big believer that the way we steer technology is through engagement, by use. I find that most of the inventors don’t even have any idea what the technology will ultimately be used for.

Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, and we have his journals of… what he thought this new ability to record sound was going to be, and his very first idea was that it would be used to record the last words of the dying, and then his second idea was that we could record sermons and distribute them. And he had a whole list of things, and at the very end he was like, well maybe we could do music – and he was the inventor of it.

So I think it’s only through use that we can find out what these things are…

Kevin Kellya16z podcast: Not If, But How – When Technology is Inevitable

Five Questions: John Greenall

Introduce yourself: who are you, what do you do, and why is it important?

I’m John and I’m the National Field Director at the Christian Medical Fellowship (www.cmf.org.uk) in the UK. I’m a paediatrician by training and combine that with my work with CMF. I head up our fieldwork with students, nurses and doctors to unite and equip them to live and speak for Jesus Christ in healthcare. My passion is leadership development in areas such as parenting and children, apologetics, global healthcare, advocacy and the day in day out work in healthcare. Medicine is at the interface of questions such as ‘what does it mean to be human’ and seeing Christians discipled in this area is key as we compassionately care for others and share the gospel with them.

What’s your most valuable skill?

I’m a starter and talent spotter. Starting programmes, training cohorts and inspiring people with the big picture vision is my passion. A bit like a number 10 on the football pitch, I get a kick out of helping others understand why they are on this planet.

Describe a tool, technique or practice that makes a difference to your work.

What we call High Impact volunteering. It’s harnessing a set of principles that govern how we recruit, select, equip and lead volunteer leaders. I truly believe that when you look after your leaders, when you envision and equip them, then the work looks after itself.

What advice do you most need to hear?

You try and do too much too fast and you’re on your way to burnout…again.

Suggest an endearing and humorous question for question number five – and answer it.

“What musical genre would you enjoy performing if you were a global superstar?”  I have to admit, whatever Michael Bublé sings.

One last thing – suggest one or two people you know whose answers you’d like to read, and who you think would enjoy answering.

Tim Cross
Steve Smith

What’s it worth? (2)

The way of thinking I described yesterday also applies to buying equipment, services and training in an organisation. The question isn’t simply “How much does this cost?” (which usually feels like a lot), but rather “How much is it worth it to us to have this problem solved?”

The obvious thing to look for is the gain in productivity that the new training or tool will bring: “What will this enable us to do, and is the gain worth the cost?” – if this isn’t clear, it’s probably not worth considering until it is.*

It’s sometimes less clear what a new tool will allow you to stop doing – will it cut several steps out of a process, need less maintenance, reduce physical waste, remove a bottleneck, stop someone from being interrupted to fix its problems?

Then there’s the inverse-opportunity cost of the new tool: what will someone from your team be able to do more of with the time and attention that’s freed up by the new asset? If the new tool frees up time to create assets, build connections, serve others, or run other important processes better, you might find suddenly that its worth several times its price.

Buy time. They’re not making any more of it.**

*And it’s essential to remember that the cost is more than the price – how much space does it take up, what support will it need, what maintenance to keep it working, what does it use up? – see Whole-life cost.

**With apologies to Mark Twain.