Marcus Borg on unending conversation

Where does the drama of history get its material? From the “unending conversation”* that is going on at the point in history when we are born.

Imagine you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before.

You listen for a while; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.

Marcus Borg – The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith

*Borg owes this metaphor to Kenneth Burke

See also Clay Shirky and Niall Ferguson on networks

Buckstop (find friends)


You can only carry the can so far.

If you started an organisation or business and the buck ultimately stops with you and no-one else, you need to make it a priority to find some friends to share the load. Find people who will make what you’re doing theirs as well as yours, own it and take responsibility for its continuation and success.

Ideally, you need more than one friend: as Clay Shirky points out in this excellent set of videos about network theory, three people in conversation is fundamentally different from two. If one side of a two-person conversation leaves, the conversation stops. With three people in the conversation (or more), people can leave and be replaced, and the conversation continues. In fact, every single participant can change, and it can still be the same conversation.

If you’re a free-lancer, and one day you can deliver your last piece of work, get paid, and close up shop, then you need friends for a different reason. But if you’re building something bigger than yourself – especially if it’s in service of a cause – you’ll soon have responsibility for other people’s work and salaries, and it will get old fast if you’re alone at the top.

Find friends.

Champion (2)

Noun
2 A person who vigorously supports or defends a person or cause.
‘he became the determined champion of a free press’
2.1 historical A knight who fought in single combat on behalf of the monarch.

Verb
Vigorously support or defend the cause of. ‘he championed the rights of the working class and the poor’

OED

Now this type of champion is worth having. Not necessarily a winner in themselves, but someone who helps someone else to win. They know you – probably including a realistic assessment of your flaws – but know that you, your team, your purpose are still worth fighting for.

Your organisation needs friends, and it needs allies, but it would really benefit from some champions. Champions help you out, tell you what you need and help you get it – often by telling others about what you need and suggesting that they give it to you.

If you’re not sure if you’ve got a champion, you don’t. Ask other people if they’ve got any amazing board members, friends, mentors or supporters, and try to get to a meeting (breakfast of champions?) and see them in action.

Don’t try to convince the lukewarm – find a champion. They’ll fight for your success, and they might just change the game.

If you can find a champion, well… that’s champion.*

*Adjective. British , informal, dialect: Excellent. ‘‘Thank ye, lad,’ the farmer said. ‘That’s champion.’’

Spec-ulation

If you’re asking someone to do something for you, an appropriate spec goes a long way.

A good spec saves everyone time and effort* and demonstrates that you value the work and other people’s time and energy.

You might include answers to the following questions:

  • Big picture, what needs to happen?
  • Why is it important – what will doing this thing achieve?
  • What are the details that you need to specify? (Mainly focused on the outcome. This will vary depending on the task, the skills of the person doing the job and your relationship to them – i.e. what can you take on trust – but must include anything that would cause you to reject the product.)
  • What are the details you don’t care much about? (Probably about the process.)
  • What suggestions or resources can you provide?
  • When should it finished by?
  • Who is responsible for getting this thing done?

The last question is critical – it’s really easy to hand over a task and still have it be your responsibility. In which case you will be the one filling in the holes and chasing up last details, which defeated the point of getting help in the first place.

*Perhaps that should read “a good spec given to a competent person, where competence includes knowing how to read, follow and question the spec where needed.”

Champion, or Ways to Win (1)

There are a couple of types of champion:

Noun 1 A person who has surpassed all rivals in a sporting contest or other competition [as modifier‘a champion hurdler’ [OED]

This is the winner, the vanquisher of foes. We all enjoy being this kind of champion – as individuals (probably especially as individuals) and as part of a team (“We are the champions”).

There are good champions and bad ones – heroes and villains, magnanimous victors and churls – but champions are a good thing. It’s fun to strive for something, it’s motivating to compete, and more often than not we like it when someone wins.

It’s also fleeting (“This year’s champions”), and – if you think about it in the wrong way – sets you up for inevitable failure. Sooner or later, someone else will be the champion.

And the things that we can win definitively are rarely important, and rarely satisfying in the long run. They are small, clearly defined, rule-constrained, finite games*.

When we’re striving to win these games, it’s worth double checking what we’re burning up to get there – time, energy, materials, relationships, opportunities – and weighing carefully what we get in return, because ‘fun’ is really the main thing we get from being a champion.

In the morning, life goes on.

All the other rewards of being a champion – prizes, status, the stories we tell ourselves about who we are as winners, and what we say about everyone else – take their meaning from other games we play.

More on this tomorrow.

*See this post, or go straight to James Carse‘s Finite and Infinite Games

Resource: Tim Harford on 50 Things that Made the Modern Economy

If you haven’t thought much about economics, this series from the BBC is a first-rate introduction to a lot of key ideas about how markets work.

Each episode is about ten minutes long and features at least one interesting, often entertaining and sometimes surprising ‘thing’ to illustrate fundamental principles of economics.

There are lessons galore about how technologies take off and spread, change culture, transform the environment (human and physical) for both good and ill, and the unpredictable nature of emergent order and complex adaptive systems.

Seasons one and two are here at the BBC, and downloadable free wherever you get your podcasts.

There’s also a book (amazon).

Tim Harford is great – The Undercover Economist and More or Less (also on the BBC) are well worth checking out too.

Five Questions: Bryan Charter

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

I’m Bryan Charter. I’m a business coach and I run a business coaching organisation along with my business partner. We do both one-to-once and group coaching to enable business owners – support them, facilitate them – to drive their businesses forward and to the next level, whatever that might be for them.

It’s important because I work with small business owners, and small business is the engine of the U.K.’s economy. There are something like 370,000 businesses turning over between £100,000 and £1 million per year in London and the South East alone. They make up something like seventy-five percent of the employment, so helping these businesses to succeed is providing employment and pumping money into the economy. Ultimately I have a hope that the tools and techniques we’re developing could be used to help businesses in developing economies too.

2. What’s your most valuable skill?

I’m good at breaking a big picture plan down into the next actionable steps and honing in on the definitive stuff that people need to be focusing on and doing.

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

It sounds basic, but something that I consistently emphasise is the combination of accountability and realism in what can be achieved in a business in the short term, whilst keeping an eye on the long term goals. We ask our clients to focus on where they want to be by the end of the year in the five functions of their business (marketing, sales, operations, finance, talent) and identify what their major objectives are in those areas for the quarter, and then planning on a monthly basis. Critically, we help them make sure that those actions are concrete and unambiguous – “What am I actually going to do this month that is concrete, actionable, and gets me moving and takes me in the direction that I want to go?” So for example, “Find new freelancers who can work with my team” isn’t actionable. “Have four conversations with people who might be able to help this month” is. Breaking things down into small enough bits helps you to take action onto larger goals and helps to prevent inertia. And having accountability around that really helps.

4. What advice do you most need to hear?

Enjoy the journey and take a long term view. It’s very easy in business to make a plan and start thinking it all needs to happen tomorrow. I can often get stressed about the rate of progress and not feel like we’ve moved forward fast enough in a month a quarter or even a year. I like what Dan Sullivan does, encouraging people to have a twenty-five year plan – one-hundred business quarters – and it helps to give perspective about short-term successes and failures. A good quarter is just one of 100 and the same is true for a bad one. Keep resetting and keep going and enjoy it while you do.

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

My questions is “What’s the stupidest thing you’ve done today?” – the answer being that I just ate a peanut-buttered crumpet that had fallen peanut-butter side down on the floor of my shed. It wasn’t the tastiest decision…

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

Kevin Johnson.

Use, repair, copy, make: Tim Harford on bicycles and technological development in Japan

In a recent episode of 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy Tim Harford uses the bicycle to illustrate – among other things – how new technologies and industries grow out of old ones, and how technology and industries develop:

The first safety bicycle was made in 1885 at the Rover factory in Coventry, England. It’s no coincidence that Rover went on to become a major player in the car industry. The progression from making bikes to making cars was obvious.

The bicycle provided stepping stones for modernising Japanese industry too. The first step was the importing to Tokyo of Western bikes around 1890. Then, it became useful to establish bicycle repair shops. The next step was to begin making spares locally, not too much trouble for a skilled mechanic. Before long, all the ingredients existed to make the bicycles in Tokyo itself, in around 1900. By the outbreak of the second world war, Japan was making more than a million bikes a year, masterminded by a new class of businessmen.

Tim HarfordBicycle Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy

Rover wasn’t the only car company to start out making bicycles: Peugeot, Opel and Skoda – and a few more listed here.

Funnily enough, I can’t find any clear examples of bicycle companies making this leap in Japan. Soichiro  Honda’s dad was a blacksmith-turned-bicycle repair man, and early Honda made motors for bicycles, and Toyota and Suzuki started out in the textile industry.

The hard part: other people

Your work probably has several hard parts, and one of them is almost certainly other people.

If only they would…

… do their jobs properly / be vaguely professional / relate to each other as grown-ups / take responsibility / have a little consideration / not bring home issues to the office / leave you alone …

… you life would be much easier.

But if you didn’t have to work on any of these these things…

… they’d probably be bored / you’d have a too-exclusive team / they wouldn’t be people / they wouldn’t need you.

If you’re a manager or leader, these things are at the centre of your contribution:

  • Helping people do their best work
  • Creating a culture and ways of working that enables your colleagues to manage themselves and each other
  • Knowing them well and supporting them personally
  • Taking time to help them with the abstract and emotional and with the nitty-gritty of their work
  • Finding training, tools, relationships that will help them to thrive
  • Having uncomfortable and very specific conversations about what needs to be done and by when and what is and isn’t working …. and dealing with the fact that people don’t always like being told
  • Doing it regularly – being accountable to yourself for your responsibility

If you’re not having fairly regular “Why do I have to deal with this crap?” moments, you might be very lucky, but it might be a sign that you’re not doing something very hard.

Marc Andreessen: the test

More from Marc Andreessen’s brilliant interview on The Moment with Brian Koppelman. This time: how breaking into the network in order to get funding isn’t so much a symptom of cronyism as a test of fundamental attributes that a fundraiser will need to be successful.

Marc: In the financing business, like, we are dying to finance the next great startup. Like, people talk about like venture capitalists; it’s you gotta run on these gauntlets to do it or like it’s so, you know, they fund all this…you know, we’re dying to fund the next Google. Like, we can’t wait. So just for god’s sake, figure out a way to build it and bring it to us. Please!

Brian: Right. Though, to get to you, somebody has to be credibly recommended to you.

Marc: Okay, so then this gets to a concept that I talked… So this goes directly what we’re talking about. So you described the process of getting you to read somebody’s screenplay. And basically it’s they have to be a referral. There should be some sort of warm referral.

Brian: Either a referral, or the only other way is over a period of time, you’ve impressed me somehow yourself.

Marc: Yeah, exactly right, independent of this specific thing that you’re trying to create. So, it’s sort of a very similar thing in venture, which is, I mean, there are certain people where it’s just like, the reputation precedes them, and they want to come in to pitch us, we’re gonna take the pitch. And some of those people, by the way, you discover on Twitter. Like, so that’s a real thing.

But more generally, it’s a referral business. And I figured this out early on, when we were starting, I talked to friends of mine at one of the top firms in the industry that’s now a 50-year-old venture firm, one of these legendary firms and they said, in the entire history of the venture firm, they funded exactly one startup pitch that came in cold, right, over 50 years. Now, they funded like a thousand that came in warm and they funded one that came in cold.

And so anyway, so that’s like, okay, well, again, isn’t that unfair? Like, okay.

So that’s why I get into what I call the test, with a capital T, The Test. And The Test is basically, the test to get to us, to get into VC is can you get one warm introduction? Just one. And in our world, you know, your world is agents or whatever or other creatives — in our world it’s an angel investor, it’s a seed funder, it’s a professor, it’s a manager at one of the big existing tech companies, right?

Brian: Someone you think is smart.

Marc: Yeah, somebody I think is smart.

Brian: And knows people.

Marc: But there are thousands of those people out there who I will take that call for.

Brian: Like, I could call you and tell you, but somebody… By the way, I won’t. Let me just say, clearly, I will not!! <laughs> But you have this world…

Marc: You could. Somebody, like, if a director of — I don’t know, there’s like, 1,000 executives at Facebook; Facebook is like a 40,000-person company, it has like, 1,000 executives at Facebook in decision-making capacity — if any one of the thousand calls up and says, “I got this kid I think you should meet.” It’s like, “Yes, I’ll take that meeting.” So it’s like, and again, it’s just one, right?

And so the test is, can you get one person to refer you, right? And it’s like, okay, like… think of the number of ways you could get one person to refer you, you could go get a job and you could go impress a manager and then that manager makes the call.

Brian: That is an incredibly good test, by the way.

Marc: And if you can’t pass the test, The Test, to get a warm inbound referral into a venture firm, then what that indicates is, you are gonna have a hell of a time as an entrepreneur. You are gonna hate being an entrepreneur because guess what you have to do, once you raise money. We’re the easy — I always say like, we’re the easy part of the process.

Once you raise money from us is when the pain begins. And the pain is trying to get other people to say yes to you. The pain specifically is trying to get people to work for you. And they all have choices, right? And so you got to convince them to come work for instead of somebody else; to try to get a customer to buy a product, and the customers are overwhelmed with new products they could buy… and so to actually sell something to somebody. And then at some point, you’re gonna have to raise money again, right? And you raise money from new people each round. At some point you’re gonna have to go get somebody else to say yes.

And so, if you can’t get a warm inbound to us, how are you possibly going to be able to function in the environment in which you’re now gonna be operating, where you’re gonna have to get all these other people to do stuff for you. And so that’s the thing.

Marc Andreessen and Brian Koppelman