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.

Brian Chesky on culture and hiring well

Our first employee was our first engineer and I think we looked for him for four or five months. I probably looked through thousands of people and I probably interviewed hundreds of people.

Some people ask, why did you take so much time on hiring your first engineer? And here’s how we thought about it: I kind of felt like your first engineer is like bringing in DNA to your company. If we were successful, there were going to be a thousand people just like him or her in the company.

So it wasn’t a matter of getting someone to build the next three features that we needed to ship for our users. There was something much more long term and much more enduring, which was “Do I want to work with a hundred or a thousand more people like this?”

You want diversity of background, age, but you don’t want diversity of values. You want very very homogeneous beliefs or values – that’s the one thing that shouldn’t be diverse.

Brian Chesky, founder of AirBnB – How to Start a Startup 2014

Full video below

Kicking cans: job descriptions versus culture

A few days ago I watched a schoolboy kicking a can down the road. He kicked it a couple of times and then miskicked, sending the can flying into the road, where it landed at the feet of an off-duty city cleaning worker, still in his orange uniform. These guys are fantastic: they put in the hard yards of sweeping the streets, cleaning out ratty drains and fetid canals doing a whole load of other stuff to keep Jakarta clean. This guy – in his uniform – trapped the can with his foot, bent down, picked it up, and looked at the kids with a grin that said “Don’t worry guys, I’ve got this.” Then he leaned back and tossed the can stylishly over his shoulder and straight into the… flowerbed.

This is a man who spends several hours a day sweating to keep Jakarta clean. He works in the dirt and grime, puts up with rats, cockroaches, heat and traffic fumes to clean the city up and to keep it clean. He’s part of the Orange Army transforming Jakarta – but he throws a piece of rubbish that lands at his feet into the flowerbed instead of the bin. Why?

Because that’s his culture. It’s what he saw his parents do, it what his neighbours do, and despite the best efforts of the school curriculum to teach another way, it’s probably what his kids do.

Job descriptions alone won’t solve this problem: you can hire all the street-sweepers you want, but you’ll never have clean streets until a large majority of people put their rubbish in the bin rather than throwing it on the ground. In other words, until keeping the city clean becomes the culture: “people like us, do things like this.”

Changing the culture is harder work than giving some people the job of cleaning up everyone else’s mess. Harder and slower, but in the long run more effective, cheaper and more sustainable. Changing the complex system of culture takes conversations, campaigns, and curriculum changes. It takes leadership: politicians, celebrities and parents who care enough to do what they say. And it does need street sweepers – people can’t see that the streets are dirty until they’ve seen clean ones.

Job descriptions are necessary, but they’re never sufficient.

*See also: Singapore, tree planting and the new normal

Singapore, tree planting and the new normal

In 1960 Singapore was – in the words of its first Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew – a third world country. ‘Normal’ for many Singaporeans looked something like this:

Or this:

singapore slum 1960s

In 1965, when it separated from Malaysia, Singapore had a long way to go. It had no natural resources, faced several threats to its existence, and many people didn’t think it would make it as an independent state.

What happened?

The story of Singapore’s transformation is long, involved, and has its share of controversy. One key piece of the puzzle was the success of Singaporean leaders to change the culture.

From Garden City to City in a Garden

Here’s one example I hugely admire: the (re-)greening of Singapore. Lee Kuan Yew took part in tree-planting campaigns as early as 1963:

… but things really kicked off in 1971 when Singapore held its first Tree Planting Day. More than thirty-thousand trees were planted that day, and they kept it up for the next twenty years, planting more than ten-thousand trees every year.

Tree Planting Day was absorbed into a broader ‘Clean and Green’ day in the 1990s, but it’s still going. Today, Singaporeans are proud of their city’s greenery, and it would be unthinkable for any development or civic space in Singapore not to include plenty of trees, recreational space and features to reduce its environmental impact.*

Clean and Green is the new normal for Singapore, but it wasn’t inevitable – it took early steps (those first tree-plants), a big push (Tree Planting Day 1971) and more than twenty years of consistent work – with hundreds of thousands of trees planted – for it to become part of Singaporean culture (‘people like us, do things like this’).

The same goes for the Singapore’s strong culture of education, decent public housing, and quality infrastructure: people made it.

*I know, these things are relative

The acid test

If my potential…

customer / employer / client / donor / partner / supplier

knew what I know about my…

product / last job / service / organisation / attitude / manners

would they still…

buy it / hire me / use it / give / join me / want my business ?

Better still…

Would they be eager to do so?

Hat tip: SG

Compound interest

We all know about compound interest in the world of money. Save £100 a month for thirty years at one percent interest** and you’ll have a little under £42,000 by the end of that time (compared to £36,000 at zero-percent).

Make that investment at 5% and suddenly you’ll hit £83,000.

10%*** makes almost £228,000.

It takes time, and the commitment to building something steadily. No tricks, no promises of outrageous returns, a degree of risk – but not when compared to not investing at all.

What if the interest we seek for our work – attention, respect, partnership, remuneration – could compound in the same way? Often it seems that we’re after a flash in the pan (Viral. Now.), or that we’re not building anything consistently at all.

Starting with almost nothing, drop by drip, brick by brick, little by little, we can build a mountain.

** 1% annually, calculated monthly

*** A reasonable return from a stocks-and-shares index fund

The new possible

My sister (let’s call her Sharky) bought me a book for Christmas.

Sharky lives in Argentina.

She bought the book from a shop in the UK.

I’m on holiday in a remote part of Indonesia.

She bought the book, told me about it, and I was reading it, in less than ten minutes.

This is the new reality – actually, not even that new anymore. Any information product (book, film, music, software, design) can go anywhere, in effectively no time.

The new possible consists of the things that this reality enables – not just instant access to information products, but information to go into products (3d printing designs, specifications) or for the delivery of products and services (your exact requirements or preferences, your real-time location, your purchase history, your credit rating).

What becomes possible in your field when the information is so relevant and so available, when the transaction becomes so fast, so frictionless?

AirBnB, and Uber are cannonical examples of the new possible, to which I’d add the fact that this year, Sharky bought me a Christmas present.

Deep literacy: Kevin Kelly on more than reading

… producing books with ease on Gutenberg’s press did not fully unleash text. Real literacy also required a long list of innovations and techniques that permitted ordinary readers and writers to manipulate text in ways that made it useful. For instance, quotation symbols make it simple to indicate where one has borrowed text from another writer. We don’t have a parallel notation in film yet, but we need one.

Once you have a large text document, you need a table of contents to find your way through it. That requires page numbers. Somebody invented them in the 13th century. Where is the equivalent in video?

Longer texts require an alphabetic index, devised by the Greeks and later developed for libraries of books. Someday soon with AI we’ll have a way to index the full content of a film.

Footnotes, invented in about the 12th century, allow tangential information to be displayed outside the linear argument of the main text. And that would be useful in video as well.

And bibliographic citations (invented in the 13th century) enable scholars and skeptics to systematically consult sources that influence or clarify the content. Imagine a video with citations. These days, of courses we have hyperlinks, which connect one piece of text to another, and tags, which categorise using a selected word or phrase for later viewing.

All these inventions (and more) permit any literate person to cut and paste ideas, annotate them with her own thoughts, link them to related ideas, search through vast libraries of work, browse subjects quickly, resequence texts, refind material, remix ideas, quote experts, and sample bits of beloved artists.

These tools, more than reading, are the foundations of literacy.

Kevin KellyThe Inevitable