Specs, laws and floors

A spec sets standards and defines output, and laws set the boundaries of acceptable behaviour.

They are indispensable, but here’s the thing: specs and laws are always floors. You can’t legislate the maximum.

There is always an extra mile.

There are unlimited extra miles in just about every direction.

Once we’re meeting spec (within the law) and doing it consistently well, it’s helpful to ask these questions:

  • Which extra miles are most important to my customers, and which do they notice?
  • Which are most helpful to my customers, to my organisation and to society in the long run? (This sounds similar but is a different question)
  • How can I make spec with less effort, and grow my capacity to exceed it in important and memorable ways? (c.f. the placebo effect)
  • How can I create a culture where going above spec and getting at the spirit of the law – a culture of kindness, generosity and a default of giving people the benefit of the doubt – is the norm?

Thanks to Kevin for pointing this idea out, and to Seth for the reminder.

“Be healthy” is not a goal

It’s undefined.

You can’t achieve it and be finished.

It’s a desirable state, and a good thing to want – but it’s not enough to help you achieve it.

With desirable-state-to-achieve-and-maintain type “goals” like this, it’s helpful first to acknowledge that you will never be able to tick it off. Same goes with the following:

“Be a good friend and family member.”
“Keep the house liveable.”
“Have enough fun.”
“Keep growing spiritually.”
“Have a meaningful career.”
“Make a contribution to my neighbourhood.”
“Achieve financial security.”

These ‘state’ goals need specific, actionable, “did I do it or not?” sub-goals in order to be maintained – usually about how you spend your time.* If you make good sub-goals, achieve them, and set further goals regularly, you’re much more likely to achieve them.

*I heard someone recently talk about turning goals into time (Dave Allen?), and that’s a helpful idea.

Thanks to Jeff Sanders 5 AM Miracle (ep #308) for the reminder.

More from Seth Godin on slack in systems and resilience

A friend was talking about building resilient systems today, something Seth covered at length in Akimbo (S4 Ep 20)… and also in this blog post:

Systems with slack are more resilient. The few extra minutes of time aren’t wasted, the same way that a bike helmet isn’t wasted if you don’t have a crash today. That buffer will save the day, sooner or later.

Seth Godin – Seths.blog

Resilient systems have slack (spare capacity to handle unexpected demands) and redundancies (spare capacity to cover essential functions if something fails).

The best ways to add resilience to your organisation are to find friends and champions, to document things well enough that you can share them, and to aim for effectiveness rather than 100% efficiency.

No mistakes. No regrets. (1)


As in, what kind of godlike, super-mega-ultra-lightning babe do you think you are? Of course you will make mistakes, and regret making some of them.

New mistakes

… are utterly essential to progress. Of course it’s foolish to seek to make mistakes – but we must consistently seek situations and opportunities in which we’ll make them. It’s not enough to be theoretically open to new situations – we need to make sure that we regularly put ourselves in them. I’m not talking about taking outrageous risks and burning our bridges – that’s almost always foolish – but most of us are in far greater danger of wrapping ourselves in cotton wool… and suffocating.

Old mistakes

Mistakes that you’ve already made are not repeated. It’s fine to regret making them (for a while), as much as it helps you to learn from them and move on.

It might be that what looks like an old mistake is actually a new, higher-level mistake. You might forget your password, then make a system to fix that problem… and then neglect to apply your own system. Different mistakes, same outcome. It helps to be clear about what kind of mistake you’ve made in order to know how to fix it.

Coming tomorrow: Mistakes of technique, mistakes of tactics and strategy, and mistakes of character.

Better with age

If you’re building skills, assets and relationships, making a generous contribution, doing work that matters for people who care… You should expect to get better with age.

The longer you’ve been working the larger, more influential and more connected your body of work becomes.

The faster the world changes, the more valuable your longer term perspective.

The faster people come and go, the greater the leverage you gain from stability and long-standing relationships of trust.

The more frivel and fluff there is, the more valuable your (only slightly curmudgeonly) discernment.

The faster everyone talks, the more enigmatic and distinguished your (only slightly baffled) reserve appears.

Be cheese. Be wine. Be whisky. Be an olive tree. A giant redwood. A turtle. A venerable crocodile.

One day, shortly after you’re forced to retire, you’ll make a lovely purse.

The switch (2)

“What am I hoping to get?”

Once we’ve admitted to ourselves that we’re doing our work (at least partly) for ourselves, we can think more clearly about our motives by asking “What am I hoping to get from doing this?”

And we’re probably hoping to get several things: the knowledge that we’ve helped someone, the satisfaction of a job well done, that we’ve contributed to solving a problem, or made things a bit better. We might also be hoping to get paid, to be liked and appreciated or admired, to do something we enjoy, or be in a particular place, or spend time with people we want to be with.

Once we’ve uncovered these sources of motivation, we can think more clearly about how we feel about our work and people’s response to it.

“I want to make a contribution”

… is a fine motivation. The next questions are “Who is it for?” and “What do I want to give?” (coming soon).

“I want to be appreciated and admired”

… are motivations that we’re less proud of, but it does us good to notice and admit them, because they’re usually there.

It can be helpful to think about the causal relationship (if any) between these motivations and our contribution. We want to be admired on the basis of our contribution, be it through our professional work, or our kindness as a neighbour. I’m reminded of Adam Smith’s saying:

Man naturally desires, not only to be loved, but to be lovely; or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of love.”

Adam Smith – Theory of Moral Sentiments

This is to say that we want genuine and deserved affection from the people we serve or work with, not wrongly-placed affection (which makes us feel like a fraud because we don’t deserve it).

Recognising this lets us focus again on the people we seek to serve, and on contribution. We start thinking “If I contribute my skill / care / art / humanity in a way that helps people, I’ll be appreciated. If I don’t, I don’t want to be.”

Thinking clearly about this is a step towards freeing ourselves from feeling hard done by or under appreciated – we’re no-longer doing our work for praise or affirmation (Seth Godin points out that there’ll never be enough of this), but because we want to make a contribution, with appreciation as a byproduct.

And we can go a step further: if we only wanted to be appreciated for our contribution, and we feel that we’ve made a contribution but aren’t appreciated or recognised… does it matter?

“I want to get paid… and maybe enjoy the buffet.”

Can go either way. Do you want to get paid through the nose for doing little work? Then you’re not working with contribution in mind, and you’re right to feel uncomfortable.

Do you want to get paid enough that you can keep doing this? This may be a lot or it may be a little depending on your circumstances. You may need to charge quite a lot – it might feel like a lot when you factor in fair wages, health insurance and pensions for your team… But you’ve made the switch from focusing on money to focusing on contribution, and on keeping on contributing.

It’s possible, of course, that there won’t be a buffet, and that people won’t pay you as much as you need or hope for. For one reason or other, your contribution isn’t worth as much to them as you think it is. You may need to change what you do, or change the story, or change your audience, or change who’s paying… and if you still can’t find a way, remember that you’re focusing on contribution, so the question becomes: “How are you going to find a way to do it anyway?”

Your business model might be “I will work a day job and do this for almost nothing,” because you’re doing it to make a contribution. Which is hard, but possible. There isn’t a necessary connection between the work you want to do, and getting paid ‘enough’ – but by looking at things the right way you might just find one.

Some questions for making change happen

  • What’s the problem?
  • What networks of people and things underlie the problem, and what context or environment are they embedded in?
  • Who wins if you solve the problem?
  • Who stands to lose?
  • What’s in it for you? What else is in it for you?
  • What or who is keeping you honest?
  • Who else cares about this? Can you join them? Will they join you?
  • What (potential) points of leverage can you identify?
  • Is there a technical or technological fix?
  • What are the key relationships, processes, and resources necessary to make the fix work?
  • What are the key relationships, processes and resources for doing it again… And again? (What’s the wrapper?)
  • What story do you need to tell, where and to whom, to make this thing happen?
  • When will you stop?

Work through these questions, act on your guesses, then work through them again.

Steve Blank: definition of a startup

I’m horrified to discover that I haven’t posted anything much focusing on Steve Blank’s work on Startups, customer discovery and iteration.

His definition of a startup is a great place to start:

A startup is a temporary organization formed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model.

Steve Blank – The Startup Owners Manual

And here’s a little more:

Entrepreneurs who have run a startup know that startups are not small versions of big companies. Rather they are different in every possible way – from goals, to measurements, from employees to culture. Very few skills, process, people or strategies that work in a startup are successful in a large established company and vice versa because a startup is a different organizational entity than a large established company.

Therefore, it follows that:
a)  Startups need different management principles, people and strategies than large established companies
b)  Any advice that’s targeted to large established companies is irrelevant, distracting and potentially damaging in growing and managing a startup

Steve Blank – A Startup is Not a Smaller Version of a Large Company

This is a really useful insight: modelling early-stage organisations on large and successful organisations has its uses – Jim Collins suggests that big companies start thinking and acting like big companies before they become big – but we need to appreciate that they’re fundamentally different organisations.

An early stage organisation is all about the search, asking questions like:

  • How do we make the change we seek?
  • How do we make our ideas work in the real world?
  • How do we serve more people and have more of an impact?
  • Where will the money come from?

Finding answers to these questions is dependent on taking risks, trying things out and making mistakes – and is fundamentally messy. It’s supposed to feel chaotic.

Steve Blank argues that a mature business – is primarily focused on exploiting a proven business model. That is, they’ve found something that works, that people want, and that pays for itself, and the challenge is to get it into the hands of as many people as possible and fight off competition. I think mature non-profits are (or should be) a bit different (we should always be looking for new and better ideas, new people to serve in new ways) – but it’s a helpful perspective. Established organisations ask questions like:

  • How can we continue to grow and to serve more people with our product?
  • How can we get more efficient at what we do?
  • How can we secure our position?
  • What will we be doing in five years’ time, and how should we budget for it?

There’s stability, predictability, a degree of safety… and (Clayton Christensen would argue), almost inevitable decline. It seems to be the case that when you’re starting out, you wish you could become a ‘proper’ organisation, and once you’ve become established, you’re desperate for the excitement and dynamism of the start.

Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what youve got til its gone?

Joni Mitchell

Worth Reading: Matthew Ball on videogame business models (Fortnite)

Thanks to Kevin Kelly for pointing this out this excellent article on REDEF by Matthew Ball. It’s interesting to learn about what Epic Games is up to with Fortnite, but more than that in terms of how computer game and media business models are evolving – and what might be next.

Highly recommend.


  • Fortnight is pulling in upwards of $300 million per month – but is completely free to use (it makes its money through optional, non-essential purchases like clothing for user characters)
  • Fortnight is way more profitable per user than facebook or google
  • It’s a huge success – but several other games have achieved similar – particularly in Asia. (for comparison: Candy Crush has earned $5bn, while The Avengers: Infinity War earned a bit more than $2bn worldwide.)
  • Its success enabled total cross-platform availability – even Sony opened up to cross-platform play on Fortnight for PS4.
  • “Fortnight likely represents the largest persistent media event in human history. As of today, the game has likely had more than six consecutive months with at least one million active users – all of whom are participating in a largely shared and consistent experience…”
  • There are some notes about Epic’s open and always-iterating business model as a platform provider (providing resources for others to make games, rather than only making its own games)
  • Some great discussion of The Metaverse – a shared virtual world (or interlinked worlds) that could be “the next version of the internet.”

Resources: Clayton Christensen on disruptive innovation

Clayton Christensen’s The Innovators Dilemma is a business classic, providing a framework for understanding how technological or business model innovations (or more usually, both) allow new businesses to gain a foothold in markets or to create new ones.

It’s been hugely influential – and has come in for its share of criticism.

This post contains links to a range of resources for getting up to speed with disruptive innovation, as well as some of Christensen’s other theories – particularly his ‘jobs to be done’ view of markets and product development, and modularity theory.

The Christensen Institute:

Brief introductions to:

… and some decent blog posts illustrating some of these topics in different fields

Talk at Google

This is my favourite overview – Christensen covers most of his key ideas clearly and with humour.

At Startup Grind

On how to build a disruptive business…

And talking with Marc Andreessen about his ideas:

On the a16z Podcast

Highly recommend these episodes:

  1. Beyond Disruption Theory: Marc Andreessen and Ben Horowitz talking about how disruption theory has been important to them, with other insights into entrepreneurship in general:

2. Competing Against Luck: Another conversation with Marc Andreessen about how the Christensen’s understanding of disruption theory has evolved

At Said Business School, Oxford

I’ve just discovered these while writing this post – will add a note later once I’ve watched them.

Lecture 1: Disruptive Innovation:

Lecture 2: Management

Lecture 3: The Process of Research