YNOT Combinator

I keep a list titled “Crazy Ideas” and a couple days after Twitter announced that they were going to shut down Vine, I wrote:

Y Not? Combinator – a second chance fund / biz plan competition for apps/companies being sunsetted e.g. Vine, Google Reader, etc. Companies could help fund via cost savings of early exit

I saw news this afternoon that Twitter COO Adam Bain was leaving the company, and I thought that maybe he could lead the process, but a quick news search shows Twitter is already in talks to sell Vine.

I still think this idea has legs, though. I miss Google Reader (and I thought I missed deli.cio.us but just found out it’s still around and my old login works – though it’s been sunsetted and sold several times).

I think that the businesss plan/pitch competition element could help keep core users excited and reinvigorate those hearing about its demise nostalgic enough to try it again, as well as creating a fundable vehicle to revive/resize a once-promising business.




Coursera Social Entrepreneurship course – week 1

This new course offered by some Wharton professors looked interesting, and I know that there have been a lot of changes in the field since I took classes with Greg Dees in 2001-2003 (recent Duke MBA grads I see at networking events are often talking about examples which are completely unfamiliar to me). Looking at the course overview, I see that there is an emphasis on design thinking that was definitely not part of my coursework. I’ve picked up a lot of that informally, and I think it’s a natural addition.

Reviewing the core concepts of social innovation and social entrepreneurship, their chosen definition of social innovation was not around in 2oo3:

“We contend that social innovation is the best construct for understanding and producing lasting social change. We redefine social innovation to mean: A novel solution to a social problem that is more effective, efficient, sustainable or just than existing solutions and for which the value created accrues primarily to society as a whole rather than private individuals.”

Source: Phills, Deiglmeier, and Miller (2008)

This was familiar, and I think draws on some of the same sources Greg used for defining innovation (Shumpeter and/or Drucker, iirc?). The social entrepreneurship definition was very familiar, it’s Greg’s. Later on in this portion of the video there is a “who/what is a social entrepreneur” portion where Peter Frumkin gives his criteria as innovation, financial sustainability, impact and scale. I have some questions regarding the inclusion/emphasis of scale, as well as around whether financial sustainability might include some traditional philanthropic funding as part of the SE’s revenue stream.

The design process is given in overview as inspiration -> ideation -> iteration -> implementation. Showing an example of the songwriting process was very illustrative of using what sound like business processes in a clearly creative/artistic endeavor.

Inspiration is defined as listening and dreaming. Listening leads to brainstorming, and a mindmap is recommended as a tool to organize the results of that brainstorming.

Mentoring and mission

I really liked this anecdote posted on Sasha Dichter’s blog:

So, what do we have to learn from a pair that has their sights set on building a $1 billion-plus company selling luxury, made-in-Pakistan shoes to the world? A lot about a lot of things, but I was struck in particular by some lessons about tenacity and humility.

I asked them what they’ve learned at Y-Combinator so far, and Sidra shared, “one of the great things about the program are the mentors. How it works is that, if you set up time with a mentor, you get 20 minutes, no more. And when you meet with a mentor, they ask you three questions: ‘What did you do last week?’ ‘What are you doing next week?’ and ‘How can I help?’ You have to be ready! And what I like about that is that it communicates that their time is valuable, and that your time is valuable.”

I may start using this structure with some of the people I coach at work, though 20 minutes would be too short for us. There are a lot of other great lessons in this blog post, including the importance of putting mission first.

Evaluating Complex Initiatives

Srik Gopal, who co-leads social sector consulting company FSG’s Strategic Learning and Evaluation practice, recently blogged at SSIR about evaluating complex social initiatives. He discusses two funders of large-scale, complex initiatives and their attempts to change the way they evaluate success, because as he says:

They are building on the recognition that a traditional approach to evaluation—assessing specific effects of a defined program according to a set of pre-determined outcomes, often in a way that connects those outcomes back to the initiative—is increasingly falling short.

He continues, stating that because complex systems are always changing, the evaluation tools used need to be “adaptive, flexible and iterative.” I’m a big fan of the idea that we need to get beyond simplistic “cause and effect” models of evaluation, which often ignore context. This is particularly true when dealing with complex initiatives and initiatives launched in unstable/changing or multiple environments – it’s important to go beyond whether something works in each location and get into why it does or doesn’t work.

The blog post gives a good feel for the flavor of the work that FSG has done to try to recognize this complexity and deploy tools that can capture the information needed to  create evaluations that can adapt to changing circumstances and capture not just outcomes but relationships and system dynamics, including a chart that shows 3 of their 9 propositions for evaluating complexity alongside what those propositions mean in the real world and some existing tools that can be used in order to capture the needed info.

However, this blog post doesn’t go beyond giving some flavor. It’s worth clicking the link they offer and going through the free signup process to see the full 30+ page report they offer. This includes all 9 propositions, both in snapshot form (page 5) and with full descriptions and case studies. There is also a chart similar to the one in the blog post on pp 31-32 that shows each proposition alongside a brief description of the proposition and some helpful evaluation tools/methods. Beyond the charts and descriptions, there are also 3 case studies.

This looks to be a great resource for those looking to design a thoughtful evaluation process for complex initiatives, as well as a way to re-think what organizations may be hoping to learn and capture for even more simple evaluation practices.

One-Two Punch: limited edition and helps a good cause

I grew up collecting things. As a teenager, I worked in a comic book and baseball card store. In college, I became a DJ at the radio station, and began seriously collecting records/music. The “limited edition” has always held a great allure for me. Not only does this increase the likelihood of an item increasing in value, there is also a feeling of being special – in a world of mass production, I’m one of only a limited number of people to own a specific artifact.

Of course, the value proposition does not always hold up. Many of the “limited edition” comic  books I bought in the early 90s have little to no value today, as the comics boom that happened during those years meant that many limited editions were produced in quantities much greater than any of the popular mainstream editions historically or since. And even when editions truly are limited, there needs to be some demand for the items for them to rise in value.

There is also the tricky notion of the collector mentality. When I was around age 12 or 13, I wanted a GI Joe plane because I had heard that toys that stayed in their packaging were a great collectible investment. Plus, this COBRA plane looked really cool. I was thrilled when I unwrapped it and effusively thanked my aunt. However, I was horrified when she suggested we open it and put it together, explaining how it had to stay in its original shrinkwrap to retain its value. That was my mom’s turn to be horrified, and she told me in no uncertain terms that I was going to open it up and play with it and stop acting so ungrateful, that toy cost a lot of money and it was bought to be played with.

I didn’t understand my mom’s point of view at the time, but by my college years, when I was collecting records, I started to get it. I tried to rid myself of the attitude and habits of “collector scum” – those who would buy up copies of pricey limited edition stuff and then never listen to it, just so they could sell it at a markup at a record fair. These people didn’t seem like real fans – music was made to be listened to, not stocked away as some sort of investment. Also, I had become somewhat disillusioned with the comics world and savvy enough to realize that many of these limited editions were simply cash grabs by megacorporations hoping to exploit fans by making them buy 5 copies of the same thing instead of one, due to “limited edition variant covers.” CD releases with bonus/hidden tracks struck that same chord with me, and I vowed not to be “collector scum” but rather a *real* fan.

Over the years, I’ve gone back and forth on the whole collector mentality – things are never as black and white as they seem in high school and college. Over the last several years, I’ve made an effort to put my money where my values are, which has primarily meant spending money on new books and records rather than used, and supporting businesses that I would like to see thriving, but has also meant paying a little more attention (and sometimes paying a little more $$) for purchases that have some component of social good (or in some cases are the lesser of all evils).

I recently bought a couple things that I consider to be big-ticket splurges, and in each case I looked at the price, and decided that it wasn’t worth it – this was something that I didn’t *need*. But then I saw that there was a charitable component to the purchase, which along with each item being a limited edition pushed me over the edge and let me self-justify the purchase decision.

The first purchase was a pair of prescription sunglasses from Warby Parker. I’ve bought my glasses from Warby Parker for several years now. When I first needed glasses, I went with the cheapest, simplest pair at the mall (same place that I got my eye exam), but over the years I was convinced that glasses, like shoes, get daily wear and you can justify spending a little more to get something well-styled and somewhat unique. Initially I was a big fan of SEE eyewear, discovered on a trip to Nashville, but when it came time for a new pair of glasses it was difficult to order online and I wasn’t making a multi-state trip just for glasses. I looked at a couple other online options and could have saved more money with Zenni, but I liked the design aesthetic at Warby Parker better and knowing that my purchase would provide a free pair of glasses to people in need via VisionSpring pushed me over the top to become a loyal customer.

Still, I tend to wear glasses a little too long, letting my prescription expire at times. And the prescription sunglasses, while a necessity due to the need to wear them while driving (arguably the time when glasses are most important), are an extra $50 at Warby Parker. When they announced the limited edition Kidd sunglasses, which support 826 National / 826 Valencia (a literacy/writing nonprofit for children that I’ve long admired), I struggled with the purchase. The glasses were cool-looking, but I already had a pair of sunglasses that I liked even a little better. Though that pair had a scratch that might be causing headaches. In the end, the combination of knowing that I was helping a good cause and that there would only be 825 other people with this pair of sunglasses pushed me over the edge, and I bought a pair.

The other recent purchase was a limited edition copy of The David Foster Wallace Reader. David Foster Wallace has been one of my favorite authors since 1996ish, and when his archives were released and I saw how heavily he annotated his own books, it was freeing in a way I never imagined – I began underlining and dog-earing my own books realizing that to keep myself from doing so was keeping myself from fully enjoying them. My attempts to keep spines uncracked was a holdover from my collector days. And so when I first heard about the release of this book, I figured that it was a waste of money, I had copies of all the uncollected work anyway, I’d wait until it came out in paperback and then find a copy on sale. Hachette didn’t need my money – I’d spend it on other authors like Roxane Gay and Amelia Gray, who could use the boost in sales a bit more.

But then I heard about the limited edition. At $300, it was 10x as expensive as the version I considered way too pricey. But it’s limited to 0nly 250 copies. And the painting used for the cover of the book, by Karen Green, would be cut into 250 pieces with one piece each included in the limited edition copies. Then, to top it all off, $50 from each book would go to a youth poetry/literacy/creative writing nonprofit. Once I went to amazon and saw that it was being sold for $200 instead of $300, I barely hesitated before completing my purchase. Don’t get me wrong, the sale *definitely* helped, but the one-two punch of a limited edition and a significant portion of my purchase supporting a cause  that I believe in really led to my pulling the trigger.

I’m rarely any company’s target audience. I’m too cheap, and my tastes are a bit too particular in most cases. However, for those companies who are focusing on the long tail consumers, it is worth noting that the combination of a limited edition with a good cause can be really compelling. The limited edition appeals to the collector impulse, the desire to be unique and own something that very few others have. Combining it with a cause helps to ameliorate the guilt of spending on oneself, particularly for something that we clearly don’t *need*.

I’m sure there’s something more to say about the guilt collectors feel (at some point, the collection itself can become burdensome and akin to hoarding) and how charitable partnerships can help consumers overcome this guilt. For me, I’m just thrilled to have bought myself a present that brings me joy whenever I look at it, and to feel secure that I won’t ever have to take it out of the protective cellophane wrapper (and if I do, it will be my decision).


Gallons per One Hundred Thousand Miles

Gallons per One Hundred Thousand Miles

Back in 2008, I blogged about Fuqua professor Rick Larrick’s research on flipping the way we talk about fuel efficiency from the familiar “miles per gallon” to “gallons used per 100 miles driven” and later that year I followed up with a post on some of the traction that idea had gained and the GPM calculator they had posted online (still up and running now).

“Giving the gas cost over the lifetime of the vehicle seems to give people a better understanding of its fuel efficiency,” Larrick said. “The current metrics used don’t help people to understand the true value of a fuel-efficient vehicle.”  -from the latest research

Last week I got a Fuqua email update that featured Larrick’s latest work on GPM, including the info that in 2013 the EPA had added “gallons per 100 miles driven” to its fuel economy labels. Larrick’s latest work shows that this label may soon warrant an update – apparently consumers prefer a fuel-efficient vehicle when they are shown the statistic of gallons per 100,000 miles driven, even when the expected cost savings in fuel efficiency does not make up for the higher cost of the fuel efficient vehicle.

“Consumers place a lot more weight on fuel efficiency when this information is given to them in terms of gas cost over 100,000 miles,” Camilleri said. “The amazing thing is that this greater weight persists even when the efficient vehicle doesn’t necessarily pay for itself in savings, which makes sense for the consumer who also cares about the environment.” 

I always find it fascinating when a change in language is able to impact cultural values and individual behavior, and the idea that this is so powerful that environmentalism could trump cost in a purchase decision is remarkable. However, I’m also a bit skeptical, as survey answers are not always a reliable indicator of actual consumer behavior. Still, even if this only works for cases when fuel efficiency is also cost efficient, this is a great way to make an impact by simply changing the language we use.

Evidence +/vs Innovation

Paul Carttar has an interesting post up over at the Bridgespan Group’s blog entitled Evidence and Innovation – Friend or Foe?

Carttar frames the discussion with an anecdote:

…during a recent discussion about what makes a nonprofit organization “high-performance.” One participant nominated innovation as a critical factor. To my astonishment, this stirred an impassioned dissent from another participant, a recognized and vocal proponent of evidence and accountability, who argued that in the nonprofit world the word “innovation” typically implies the generation of exciting new ideas, apparently free of any bothersome, killjoy demands for validation of merit.

Carttar talks about how this is nothing new – that during his time running the white house Social Innovation Fund, he often heard complaints that evaluation stifles innovation. And I’ve certainly seen numerous innovative approaches shut down or left un(der)funded because they’re not “evidence based” – but Carttar makes two important distinctions: 1) Innovation is less about “something new” and more about “something better,” and 2) ” hard evidence of relative performance is the most legitimate, productive way to determine what actually is better.”

Carttar then goes on to discuss the varying types of “hard evidence,” clearly stating that not all types are appropriate for all efforts. He makes the crucial distinction between startup and mid-stage enterprises, and what type of evaluation and “evidence” makes sense for each.

At its best, evidence serves as innovation’s good friend by stimulating continued improvement and providing potential beneficiaries, funders and other stakeholders an objective basis for determining whom to turn to and to support. In this way, evidence can not only “cull the herd” but actually propel the growth and scaling of the best innovations, enabling them over time to become the prevailing practice. In fact, that’s the hopeful theory underlying the SIF.

To be sure, there are plenty of opportunities for conflict between evidence and innovation, which must be diligently managed. Potential funders may demand unrealistically rigorous standards of evidence to assess relatively immature, still-evolving programs—potentially stifling the development of promising solutions. Ill-timed, poorly executed, or inaccurately interpreted evaluation studies can also prematurely choke off development. Or backers of a program with a robust empirical basis may hesitate to invest in further improvements (that is, continued innovation) for fear of undermining the program’s evidentiary support and perceived competitive advantage.

The discussion continues in the comments, and is worth reading for its thoughtfulness and appreciation of nuance.

John Kotter on organizational design

A review of John Kotter’s new book Accelerate: Building Strategic Agility for a Faster-Moving World in HBS Working Knowledge offers both a summary of the book’s key principles and an excerpt from the book itself. The concept builds on Kotter’s earlier work that focused on adding speed and agility to large businesses, and advocates for creating an organization that has “two operating systems” – one for everyday business and a smaller, agile system that “sits alongside to focus on the opportunities and demands of the future.”

Under a dual operating system, all processes and activities that involve what a company already knows how to do stay on the regular, hierarchical side of the company. High-stakes initiatives that involve change, speed, innovation or agility, go to the new agile network.

Reviewer Kim Girard continues, emphasizing that Kotter is not looking to abandon the traditional hierarchical model, but enhance it:

A dual operating system is a nod to what Kotter believes is some of the most interesting management thinking of the past few decades, from Michael Porter’s “wakeup call telling us that organizations need to pay attention to strategy much more explicitly and frequently,” to Clayton Christensen’s insights about how poorly companies handle the technological discontinuities inherent in a faster moving world. Kotter also credits recent work by Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman, who describes the brain as two coordinated systems, one more emotional, the other more rational.


In a typical organization—from the federal government to a pharmaceutical giant—a hierarchical operational structure meets daily demands through clear reporting relationships and responsibilities, Kotter writes. This structure minimizes risk, keeping people in boxes and silos, sorting work into departments, product divisions, and regions. Trouble is, managers in hierarchical organizations don’t promote or reward risk and innovation—they rely on routine, and turn to the same trusted people to run key initiatives.

Girard goes on to discuss Kotter’s 5 key principles for the dual operating systems, which ensure that the system works as envisioned (an “enhanced heirarcy” that focuses on leadership and innovation) and 8 accelerators that help managment tackle big opportunities for change. The accelerators are strikingly familiar, as many seem to have been adapted from Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit. Overall, an interesting approach to organizational design.

Jazz as business metaphor

As a fan of avant garde jazz and an MBA who reads a lot of professional develpment stuff, I’m often frustrated by articles that use jazz as a metaphor or analogy to impart some advice about the importance of improvisation in business. However, I liked several things in Michael Blanding’s recent review of Michael Wheeler’s book on negotiation: The Art of Negotiation.

Blanding opens the review with a quote from Eisenhower that I really like:

There’s a saying in the military: “Plans go out the window at the first contact with the enemy.” Even General Dwight Eisenhower—who oversaw the most ambitious military invasion in modern history—said, “Plans are worthless.” But he added an important caveat: “Planning is everything.”

The review covers many aspects of negotiation, from the aforementioned planning/preparedness, to dealing with uncertainty, to listening, to strategy, to mindfulness and more. Quotes from great negotiators are laid side by side with quotes from recognized artists/improvisers. Near the end of the review, Blanding says:

Being centered emotionally is essential to negotiation success. Wheeler says it requires being comfortable with seemingly contradictory feelings—for example, being simultaneously calm and alert—and approaching negotiation as an ongoing process of discovery about the situation, your counterpart, and perhaps even yourself.

And as long as I’m discussing this, I might as well provide a link to my friend Scott’s article a few years ago, talking about what jazz soloists know about creative collaboration.


The Green Prince

This past weekend I saw several films at the FullFrame Documentary Film Festival. The ones that I liked most were The Case of The Three Sided Dream, about Rahsaan Roland Kirk (who I’ve been a fan of for years) and The Chaperone, an animated short that was surprisingly funny.

The film that has stuck with me the most, though, was The Green Prince. It centers on the relationship between the son of one of the leaders of Hamas and his handler in the Shin Bet (Israeli secret service). I’ve seen several documentaries on Israel/Palestine, but this one really stood out.

Rather than focusing on the conflict and its history, or one particular series of events, or cause/effect, this was really a story about the relationship between two men who know that they are on different sides but have found some common ground. They’re both articulate and conflicted, and I was never quite sure where the story was going to go.

The film was really remarkable for its lack of moralizing. So many documentaries, particularly ones that deal with politics and war, keep hammering home a directorial viewpoint. The Green Prince seemed to keep trying to do the opposite – to avoid black and white depictions of right and wrong and instead to emphasize the shades of gray in between. It touched on issues of culture, personal identity, choice, responsibility, and more, but always with a very light touch.

I really appreciated the way this story was told, and since the film did well at Sundance, I’m guessing it will have decent distribution. I’d definitely recommend keeping an eye out for it.

The Power of Habit – afterword and appendix

I found the afterword and appendix to actually contain some of the most powerful, straightforward stuff in Duhigg’s book (though you may need to read the entire thing for this to be the case).

The afterword includes follow-up stories with some readers who had written in with thier experience using Duhigg’s guidance to lose weight, quit smoking, stop procrastination and improve teaching. One of the things that struck me the most in this chapter was the discussion of setbacks, and the importance of developing a plan for dealing with them. Duhigg says that “if you plan for failure, and then plan for recovery – you’re more likely to snap back faster.”

The Appendix provides a practical guide to using all the ideas in the book. Duhigg is careful to warn that even with a common habit, such as overeating, the cues, cravings, rewards, etc may be different for each person – which is why he created the book as a framework rather than a prescription. His framework is:

1) Identify the routine – the habit loop of cue, routine and reward seems simple enough, but figuring out the cue can be more difficult than you might expect. The routine itself, however, should be simple to identify.

2) Experiment with rewards – the reason for experimenting with rewards is actually to help to figure out what craving the routine is satisfying. As you test each reward, look for patterns by jotting down the first three things that come to mind once you have completed your routine with the new reward. Then, set an alarm for 15 minutes and when it goes off ask whether you still have the craving for the routine. The rationale behind these steps is described in the book, and reviewing the notes on how you felt immediately after the replacement rewards as well as 15 minutes later will help identify exactly what craving this routine has been satisfying.

3) Isolate the cue – Duhigg shares scientific evidence that almost all habitual cues fall into one of five categories: location, time, emotional state, other people or immediately preceding action. So when he felt a craving for the routine he wanted to change, he wrote down answers to the questions: Where are you? What time is it? What’s your emotional state? Who else is around? What action preceded the urge?

4) Have a plan – Once the cue is identified and you already know the routine you want to change and a suitable replacement reward, all the elements are in place to create a better routine. The plan is crucial for dealing with setbacks, and gettting back on track.


Are we responsible for our habits?

The final chapter of Duhigg’s The Power of Habit discusses neurology and personal responsibility. Once again, he uses two powerful examples to make his point.

One example is of a man who killed his wife while experiencing sleep terrors (a slightly less conscious version of sleepwalking). Scientific and circumstantial evidence showed that this man had no intent to kill his wife, and that he was simply following a deeply ingrained habit – fight or flight – and was left with a deep sense of guilt. Not only was he found not guilty, the judge attempted to console him.

The next example was of a woman who developed a habit of compulsive gambling, declared bankruptcy and moved to another state to avoid casinos, but was drawn back in by predatory marketing and grief over the loss of her parents – which ended up in the loss of her $1 million inheritance.

A study of the neurology of problem gamblers showed that their brains showed the same reward reaction to near wins as they did to wins, whereas other gamblers correctly interpreted near wins as losses. This showed up in the brain stem and basal ganglia, the same areas as sleep terrors. Further, people who have taken medication that affects these areas have been found not to be responsible for sudden binges of gambling, eating, shopping, etc. So should all problem gamblers who exhibit this deterioration be excused for their actions?

Duhigg says no:

We can choose our habits, once we know how. Everything we know about habits, from neurologists studying amnesiacs and organizational experts remaking companies, is that any if them can be changed, if you understand how they function.


However, to modify a habit, you must decide to change it. You must consciously accept the hard work of identifying the cues and rewards that drive the habits’ routines, and find alternatives. You must know you have control and be self-conscious enough to use it…

The habits of societies – how movements happen

Chapter 8 of the Duhigg book, focusing on the Montgomery bus boycotts and the founding and growth of Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church, is the beginning of the third portion of the book – the habits of societies.

Early in the chapter, Duhigg introduces the concept of weak ties – the people who are not close friends but instead casual acquaintances or friends-of-friends. As I’ve heard before, weak ties can be more important than close ties in finding a job. But it also turns out that they are crucial to building a movement. In discussing Rosa Parks, Duhigg says:

A movement starts because of social habits of friendship and the strong ties between close acquaintances. It grows because of the habits of a community, and the weak ties that hold neighborhoods and clans together. And it endures because the movement’s leaders give participants new habits that create a fresh sense of identity and a feeling of ownership


Duhigg talks about how Parks was an extraordinary individual, with ties that crossed many social boundaries and was admired throughout the community. But that is just a catalyst. It is when “the strong ties of friendship and the weak ties of peer pressure merge” that momentum is gained.

As always, Duhigg takes what seems like a simple 1+1 recipe and then says there its a secret ingredient – in this case it is this:

For an idea to grow betting a community, it must become self-propelling. And the surest way to achieve that is to give people new habits that help then figure out where to go on their own.

This was the secret to the growth of both the bus boycotts and then the larger civil rights movement as well as Saddleback church, posits Duhigg.

Movements don’t emerge because everyone  suddenly decides  to face the same direction at once. They rely on social patterns that begin as the habits of friendship, grow through the habits of communities, and are sustained by new habits that change participants’ sense of self.

When companies predict (and manipulate) habits

Chapter 7 in Duhigg’s book begins by talking about Target, and how they infamously used their analytics to identify pregnant women before they had told their families. The seemingly incongruous example paired this time is the Outkast song Hey Ya, which software had predicted would be a huge hit.

In both cases, the initial result was failure. The Outkast song was too different from what listeners were used to, and the Target targeting through coupons was too creepy.

Duhigg shares the secret recipe for creating habits from an old U.S. government study when they were trying to get Americans to eat more offal: people will try something new when it is surrounded by what is familiar.

So Hey Ya was played in between mega hits, and Target started putting the baby coupons next to unrelated common consumer items, and both succeeded.

The power of a crisis to instigate habit change

Chapter 6 of Duhigg’s book talks about the role crisis can play in instigating habit change. But first he explains the research of Nelson and Winter, who wrote about institutional habits as truces between warring factions within organizations. Duhigg says “There are no organizations without institutional habits. There are only places where they are deliberately designed, and places where they are created without forethought, so they often grow from rivalries or fear.”

Duhigg uses the examples of rampant medical errors and a major transit safety incident, which underscores his point: “Sometimes one priority – or one department or one person or one goal – needs to overshadow everything else, though it might be unpopular or threaten the balance of power that keeps trains running on time.”

Crisis brings this into sharp focus. Crisis brings a turmoil in which habits are more malleable and the sense that something must be done. It is easier to institute change and form new habits and routines in a crisis our its immediate aftermath.

While Duhigg emphasizes this for organizational leaders, it seems relevant to the individual as well. When we feel we are in crisis, out is easy to say “I can’t take on new changes during this time of chaos.” But maybe that’s actually the best time to make a change because we see the need and are open to it.

The evolution of strategic thinking in noprofits

Jed Emerson’s twitter feed (@blendedvalue) pointed me to this SSIR article by Barbara Kibbe entitled Five Things Strategy Isn’t, which Emerson describes in the comments as “just a really nice framing of how we got here and where we’re headed.”

The first half of the article is just that – a great summary of how “the dynamic duo of strategy and evaluation” has evolved from flip charts that simply record discussions, to logic models, to SROI and beyond. I’m oversimplifying what Kibbe herself calls an oversimplification, but that’s because it’s worth checking the article itself if you’re not familiar with the evolution of evaluation processes, tools and thinking from the 80s to now. My own nonprofit journey didn’t start until the 90s, but being in small local nonprofits, we certainly used 80s tools/thinking in the 90s (and sometimes still today).

The second half of the article opens by saying that the current debate over the value of strategic philanthropy is healthy, but in order to have that debate we should be careful in defining our terms. And Kibbe starts that definitional discussion by pointing out five times when what we call strategic thinking isn’t actually strategic:

  • when it’s fixed – good strategy is never fixed, nor is it a single tool (or a pair of tools). Kibbe quotes Rosabeth Moss Kantor of HBS: “Strategy is a lot like improvisation—setting themes, destinations, directions, and then improvising around those themes.”
  • when it’s insulated – context is key, and if strategy and evaluation are not considered together then both will suffer
  • when it doesn’t consider people – strategy needs to be flexible enough to deal with the complexities of human beings
  • when it’s old, hidden or boring – strategy needs to be current, compelling and shared in order for others to understand it and buy in
  • when we are too attached to it – here Kibbe quotes The Independent Sector’s founder John Gardner saying “Philanthropy is the only source of truly flexible capital for the social good” and following up with how important it is for foundations to listen to and support good ideas from the field.

Kibbe closes with her hopes for the future, including this quote that I really liked:

When we look strategy (and evaluation) in the eye, we will see a useful and evolving suite of tools—no more, no less. Practiced well, and in tandem, they will continue to be powerful aids for decision-making but never substitutes for judgment.


Making willpower a habit

The fifth chapter in Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit is about Starbucks, and features the success story of one of its employees. Starbucks has focused on developing the habit of willpower in its employees and in doing so has “…succeeded in teaching the kind of life skills that schools, families and communities have failed to provide,” says Duhigg, before he goes into the research, discussing the marshmallow study and several variants. 

Willpower has been shown to be a finite resource, says one of the scientists:

Willpower isn’t just a skill. It’s a muscle, like the muscles in your arms or legs, and it gets tired as it works harder, so there’s less power left over for other things

Studies showed that willpower exercised in one area often translated into other areas – whether subjects were asked to go to the gym, begin money management, or practice study habits, they got better at regulating their impulses and distracting themselves from their temptations. A study of orthopedic patients who were asked to write action plans for their physical activity recovered at a greater rate than those simply given instructions – researchers found that it was the plan for dealing with key inflection points of pain  that helped them through.

Starbucks used this to design a training system for employees. Employees were introduced to the situation where an inflection point – like an angry customer – could cause a breakdown, and a framework for how the company suggests dealing with the situation. The employee then filled in the answer, and role played so that their response became automatic. The angry customer “inflection point” becomes the cue in the habit loop, and the reward should be grateful customers, praise from the manager, etc.

The other thing Duhigg emphasizes in this is the sense of agency that Starbucks gives employees. When people feel like they are in control, when they feel like it is their choice to exercise willpower (rather than having someone brusquely demand that they exercise willpower), they don’t need to use as much willpower and their energy and attention for other tasks dramatically increase. 


75 Dollar Bill

I really enjoyed this, sent along by my friend Adam

Keystone Habits

Part 2 of Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit begins with a chapter that talks about keystone habits. These are habits that, once created or changed, have a cascading “snowball” effect on other aspects of a person’s life. Duhigg says:

Keystone habits say that success doesn’t depend on getting every single thing right, but instead relies on identifying a few key priorities and fashioning them into powerful levers…The habits that matter most are the ones that, when they start to shift, dislodge and remake other patterns.

This is the part of the book where Duhigg switches from a focus on individuals to a focus on organizations, so it seems appropriate that his examples include one of each – this chapter looks at Olypmpic swimmer Michael Phelps and aluminum manufacturer Alcoa. Duhigg initially focuses on Alcoa’s CEO, Paul O’Neill, who came in to run the company at a time when it was in decline and whose focus on workplace safety led it to outperform the competition even after he left. 

Duhigg begins the story of the Alcoa transformation with a lengthy background on O’Neill, demonstrating his knowledge of habits and how he honed this knowledge throughout his career. When O’Neill took CEO position at Alcoa, he recognized that if he were to succeed, he would need a focus that unions and executives could both agree was important – this was worker safety. O’Neill had determined that this was a keystone habit:

The key to protecting Alcoa employees, O’Neill believed, was understanding why injuries happened in the first place. And to understand why injuries happened, you had to understand how the manufacturing process was going wrong. To understand how things were going wrong, you had to bring in people who could educate workers about quality control and the most efficient work processes, so that it would be easier to do everything right, since correct work is also safer work.

In other words, to protect workers, Alcoa had to become the best, most streamlined aluminum company on earth.

Duhigg details some of the policies that O’Neill implemented, and shows how a focus on one thing – worker safety – had far-reaching implications for how the company operated. He then returns to Michael Phelps and talks about how exercise is often a keystone habit for people – how even exercising once a week can have a spillover effect in how people make choices about eating, sleeping, etc. Reading this section, I was reminded of the FlyLady, whose email list I was on for a while back when I could not manage to keep my house clean. One of her central tenets is to start with the kitchen sink, and ensure that at the end of each day, that is clean. Somehow, that really helped me, and now I see that it was part of a keystone habit around attacking cleanliness and organization.

Of course, Duhigg does not stop with keystone habits – there must be a secret sauce for each chapter, and in this one it is “small wins.” Duhigg introduces small wins with Phelps, then has a brief aside that mentions the wealth of research around the effectiveness of small wins and how they sparked a major movement for LGBT equality, and then returns to the Alcoa example to discuss how small wins helped the keystone habit of focusing on workplace safety become ingrained. Duhigg says “This is the final way that keystone habits encourage widespread change: by creating cutures where new values become ingrained.”


The Test

I started watching the video lectures for Dan Ariely’s mooc A Beginner’s Guide to Irrational Behavior today. The video above was a supplementary video demonstrating visual illusion, which was then used as a metaphor for our decision illusions – we often believe that we are good at making decisions and that they are rational, when in fact we are often very bad at this based on the ways that we process information.

I’m about halfway through the first week’s video lectures, and we’ve already covered defaults (the easiest decision is to do nothing, and whatever is framed as the default will become the option chosen most often), preferences and convictions (when asked to list 10 reasons for a decision we are less certain of it than when asked to list 3 reasons), choice sets and relativity (how the inclusion of a third “lesser” option can send people toward the option it is similar to), and the long-lasting effects of decision-making (once we make a decision we tend to keep making that same choice). Definitely enjoying this so far, though I’m eager to get beyond what I recall from reading The Upside of Irrationality.