Happy New Year, everyone! (I’m still just about within three days, so Larry David won’t get annoyed at me.)
As ever, I caught up on lots of reading over the festive period, powered by the energy that only Quality Street, turkey curry, and an email out-of-office can provide. Among the highlights were Alf Bonnevie Bryn’s hilarious account of a haphazard 1909 mountaineering trip to Corsica, Peaks and Bandits, Washington Irving’s Old Christmas which I weirdly hadn’t read before, and Benjamín Labatut’s breathtaking “non-fiction novel” When We Cease to Understand the World.
But I also enjoyed Serhii Plokhy’s The Last Empire, a genuinely riveting read about the last days of the Soviet Union. At the risk of narrowing the Venn diagram of my readership to something impossibly tiny, this week’s article is about that very subject, and what me might learn from it – and trust me, I think there are lessons to be learned even for those of us who aren’t running a crumbling, continent-sized socialist federation.
Thirty years ago, Communist hard-liners launched a coup in the USSR. Days later, they’d failed – and Boris Yeltsin had catapulted himself into the heart of power. Why did they fail, why did Yeltsin succeed, and what can we learn from Yeltsin’s navigating of uncertain events?
From 2017 and found via Tom Stuart’s weeknotes, some brilliant and beautiful writing advice from George Saunders, author of Lincoln in the Bardo.
“How, then, to proceed? My method is: I imagine a meter mounted in my forehead, with ‘P’ on this side (‘Positive’) and ‘N’ on this side (‘Negative’). I try to read what I’ve written uninflectedly, the way a first-time reader might (‘without hope and without despair’). Where’s the needle? Accept the result without whining. Then edit, so as to move the needle into the ‘P’ zone. Enact a repetitive, obsessive, iterative application of preference: watch the needle, adjust the prose, watch the needle, adjust the prose (rinse, lather, repeat), through (sometimes) hundreds of drafts. Like a cruise ship slowly turning, the story will start to alter course via those thousands of incremental adjustments.
“The artist, in this model, is like the optometrist, always asking: Is it better like this? Or like this?
“The interesting thing, in my experience, is that the result of this laborious and slightly obsessive process is a story that is better than I am in ‘real life’ – funnier, kinder, less full of crap, more empathetic, with a clearer sense of virtue, both wiser and more entertaining.
“And what a pleasure that is; to be, on the page, less of a dope than usual.”
JP Castlin, whose Strategy in Praxis newsletter is well worth a subscribe, explains the Ansoff Matrix, something I’ve always been fond of. But he also eloquently explains its limitations.
Hope is not lost for the Ansoff Matrix – it can still be useful – but perhaps needs to be put into a broader context:
“Given its limitations, then, the best way to use the Ansoff matrix is together with a contextual understanding of the business and an already set strategic aspiration… it is a good way of visualizing what one can do – but despite Ansoff’s best efforts and Kotler’s claims to the contrary, it tells us little about what one should do or why.”
Clive Thompson has an excellent theory of the emergence of new technologies, which he credits to Bill Buxton.
Rather than coming from nowhere, new technologies are apparent in the world long before they reach widespread public consciousness:
“…very few major technologies emerge suddenly. Quite the opposite: They’re usually the product of gradual tinkering and experimentation, with engineers and designers puttering around for years or even decades. Things get slowly refined, and the new tech starts being used in real-world circumstances, but mostly in niche areas.
“Eventually some mass-market inventor notices these niche uses and realizes huh, this tech really works now. They build it into a mainstream product – which bursts into truly mass adoption.”
Knowledge of this can enable you to search out technologies that might well reach mass adoption in the future:
“If you wanted to predict the Next Big Thing, the Long Nose theory suggests that you don’t need to look in top-secret corporate innovation labs or in the latest scientific literature.
“No, you look in the world around you. As Buxton told me, you go “prospecting and mining” – and see what tools are already being eagerly used in areas that lie just outside the mainstream. Those are the technologies that are being stress-tested to the point where they’re ripe to become a mass phenomenon. And you look for something that has that element of ‘surprising obviousness.’”
Dan Luu neatly summarises why treating people as interchangeable is one of the most damaging things you can do to an organisation:
“A friend of mine recently told me a story about a trendy tech company where they tried to move six people to another project, one that the people didn’t want to work on that they thought didn’t really make sense. The result was that two senior devs quit, the EM retired, one PM was fired (long story), and three people left the team. The team for both the old project and the new project had to be re-created from scratch.
“As we’ve previously seen, an effective team is difficult to create, due to the institutional knowledge that exists on a team, as well as the team’s culture, but destroying a team is very easy.
“I find it interesting that so many people in senior management roles persist in thinking that they can re-direct people as easily as opening up the city view in Civilization and assigning workers to switch from one task to another when the senior ICs I talk to have high accuracy in predicting when these kinds of moves won’t work out.”