Friction (1): costs to convenience

Friction is anything that makes it harder to for us to get something done – buy a product or use a service, do our jobs, learn something, enjoy ourselves.

There will always be friction – but poor design and execution and a lack of clarity about what things are for make it worse than it needs to be. For example:

  • unhelpful bureaucracy
  • long waiting times
  • extra travel
  • clunky interfaces
  • running things in series when they could be run in parallel
  • running things in parallel badly (e.g. grinding coffee and getting the milk out of the fridge before starting the kettle boiling)
  • Unnecessary approvals
  • lack of information (including opaque information) about what’s available, when and how, how much it costs, and other requirements
  • Dispersed or contradictory information
  • excessive security or controls compared to the risk (and always if poorly executed)
  • choke-points in buildings, single-checkouts in busy supermarkets
  • A lack of standards or consistency (think of Wi-Fi, electrical voltage, computer connections, weights and measures)

Leg ups

It’s easy to recruit people or find partners if you lower your standards, but you almost certainly shouldn’t – apart from anything else, when will you stop?

A more useful approach is asking what you can do to help people get to the starting line. You might:

  • Get better at finding to the right people at the right time;
  • Be clearer about what attitudes and skills people need to bring with them if they want to work with you – and how they can demonstrate that they have them, and how they might gain them if they don’t;
  • Be clearer about the value that you offer to people working for you or with you – communicate it well, and make sure you keep your promises;
  • Think carefully about how you could be more accessible and flexible – and where you can’t or won’t be;
  • Learn to train and manage people twice as well as you do now – and think about how you might train people outside your organisation – what could you make and share?

Who do you most want to give a leg up?

Starting line

Where’s the starting line for your project?

How good does someone need to be to…

  • Work for you?
  • Work with you?
  • For you to work for them?

What type of ‘good’ are you looking for?

It’s highly likely that the best contractor / employee / partner / donor / customer isn’t simply the cheapest / most available / one with the most money.

In most cases, a person’s qualifications will tell you little or nothing about what they actually have to contribute, or what they might drain from you and your team.

Econtalk: Mauricio Miller on Poverty, Social Work, and the Alternative

This is a really interesting episode of Econtalk, and worth a listen.

Highlight 1: Accurate description of poor communities

A couple of things here really resonated with my experience of living and working in low-income communities in Jakarta:

  • Miller’s descriptions of the resourcefulness of people in poor communities – that many people in poor communities are hard working and resourceful and demonstrating impressive amounts of willpower and – in his word – ‘talent’ just to get by on low incomes.
  • The dynamism of poor communities, particularly in terms of people moving in and out of poverty – apparently backed up by statistics. According to Miller, although 15% of the U.S. population are ‘poor’ at any given time, the majority of those will move above the poverty line, to be replaced by other (temporarily) poor people – i.e. people who lost their job a month before the census and have no income, but will soon return to work. Miller says that only about 3% of the population are ‘long-term, generationally poor.’

Highlight 2: What happens when users pay for services

This section also really reflected my experience at the charity I work for, where a switch to a ‘user pays’ model of service (rather than a purely donation-based, ‘charitable’ model) made us more responsive to the needs of our users, and drove up the quality of what we do. Here’s Miller:

Mauricio Miller: …I wouldn’t bring my own family through [my own social services]; now I had money–

Russ Roberts: Why not?

Mauricio Miller: Because they were paternalistic. My mother hated that. She said, ‘The social workers are really nice, but they take away my pride.’ And certainly the racists would take away her pride, too. You know. And sexual harassers would take away her pride. But even the people who were trying to be really nice would take her pride away. And so, that was one of the issues. The other issue is that the programs that I had were sold–and the structures were to sell to get funding. Funders don’t really understand circumstances on the ground. But, they get certain interests. And so you have to shape your program based on what they kind of want in order to get the money. And that, then you are held accountable to those kind of standards. Where, I actually had started two businesses within my own non-profit, that, when you are running a business, you have to meet the customer demand. Not the investor demand. You have to really meet the customer demand. And so, somehow or other, when I wanted to adjust my programs, they were not responsive to my customers. And so, for me, my social service programs were too structured, too paternalistic. They did not recognize or meet that market demand. And now that I was middle income and had money, I would instead, when I had to help my nephew and nieces who struggled with drugs and all kinds of things, I would go to private sector services, because they would say, ‘Do you want us to send the advisor on the weekend, or the evenings?’ Or, ‘What’s convenient for you?’ and ‘Would you like this program?’ I was given choices. Because I had money. But people who were poor didn’t have those kind of choices. And so, why would I want to take my own family, that had struggled with everything that everybody else was struggling with what was out there in some of these neighborhoods: Why would I take them into a system that was so structured and was not responsive when I had money? So, money made a difference. And I realized that: No, I wouldn’t bring my own family.

Russ Roberts and Mauricio Miller – Econtalk

In the end, I wasn’t completely convinced with Miller’s model – or didn’t feel completely clear about what he was offering – but these bits were excellent – and true.

This sort of thing

Those who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like.

Artemus Ward*

I came across this at the start of Aaron Dignan‘s Brave New Work**

It’s a fantastic line. It was written as a faux-disparaging remark that was exactly intended to show the sort of humour you could expect from the Ward/Browne.

What I love about it is that it’s true of almost everything, including (and perhaps especially) the kind of highbrow entertainment that Ward’s fictional reviewer would have thought was worth their attention: opera, ballet, public lectures… If you like that kind of thing, you’ll find it the sort of thing you like.

And if you don’t like this sort of thing that doesn’t mean it’s bad (though of course it might be bad) – it means it’s not for you.*** And that’s fine. It’s not for you, and your opinion isn’t really relevant – what matters is the opinion of the people who it’s for.

This is a liberating way of thinking about anything you make, anything you’re trying to build or sell… even about yourself.

*Variously attibuted to Ward (pen name of Charles Farrar Browne), Abraham Lincoln and others. Ward is the best bet – more here.

**A really interesting read – recommended – more to follow.

***Seth Godin has written a lot on this – see this post, this episode of Akimbo, Tribes and This is Marketing

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.

Courtesy and cold fusion

One yardstick of wealth is how much you give away. It’s easy to run out of time and money, but there are no hard limits to your supply of courtesy and consideration.

I’ve had several interactions with courteous, engaged service people this week, and they made a huge difference to a difficult week – I still feel glad about them. Being courteous – assuming the best, being polite, giving respect and space to people before you’re forced to concede ground or fight for it – is a wonderful form of generosity. It makes almost everything better, feels great, and almost always creates more energy than it costs.

It’s cold fusion.

Tom Peters on ‘People Stuff’

I’ve made a start on The Excellence Dividend and really like what Tom Peters has to say, and how he says it. Here he is in his inimitable ALL CAPS style:

WHILE I’VE BEEN ON THE EXCELLENCE DIVIDEND  BOOK TOUR–MOSTLY PODCASTS — I’VE BEEN ASKED OVER AND OVER TO EXPLAIN MY “OBSESSION” WITH THE “PEOPLE STUFF.”

I USUALLY ANSWER, SNIPPILY, “WELL WHAT THE HELL ELSE IS THERE?”

ORGANIZATIONS, NO MATTER HOW MUCH TECHNOLOGY THEY USE, ARE NO MORE AND NO LESS THAN ‘PEOPLE SERVING PEOPLE’.

AND AS A LEADER, YOUR JOB IS: SERVE THE PEOPLE WHO SERVE THE PEOPLE.

(ONE LAST THING: THE PEOPLE WE SERVE ARE OUR EMPLOYEES AND OUR CUSTOMERS AND OUR COMMUNITIES.)

Tom PetersExcellence Dividend Fundamentals Slideshow

As powerful as a smile

Real marketing is built into what you do and why you do it. It’s part of your story, something that you do organically when your business is aligned with your mission and values. Kept promises, free returns, obsession with the details, returned emails, clean tables, and attentive staff – all of this is your real marketing.

Real marketing creates a deeper impact, leaves a lasting impression, and is as powerful as a smile.

Bernadette Jiwa – The Fortune Cookie Principle

Why do people come to you for the thing you provide?
What do they get? Why do they want it? How does it make them feel?
What makes them come back?
Do they tell other people about you? What do they say?

What do your actions / words and tone of voice / website / way you dress / your office / commitment to doing things well say about who you are and what you’re doing? Do they say the same thing?
For a non-profit organisation, do you smile at your donors and your clients in the same way? (you should)
Are you an example of these things for your team? How do you articulate them to the team, to new members, to partners?