You're a Leader, Not a Bus Driver

Businesspeople love Jim Collins. Jim wrote Good to Great to explain how to build a winning company from the ground up. It was a lighthouse to a generation of managers struggling to find their economic footing in the 2000’s. It is now a part of the American management psyche, but some of its maxims, distanced in time from the source, have lost their nuanced fidelity.

300 pages of rigorous analysis and thoughtful discussion explaining what makes a winning company have become fossilized into pithy one liners, entombed in the minds of modern managers. When this happens to any idea, we risk losing our connection to the core truth and leading by platitude, not understanding.

“Everything should be as simple as it can be, but not simpler” — Einstein

The thing about sound bites is that they are memorable, and in that brevity lies their seductive power. They offer knowledge in a bite sized form — tiny compartmentalized truth snacks we can deftly draw from hip pocket on demand should the need arise. No manager should ever be without one.

My favorite misapplied wisdom from Good to Great is the maxim to “get the right people on the bus.” This pruned slogan stems from this longer passage:

“Leaders of companies that go from good to great start not with “where” but with “who.” They start by getting the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats.” — Jim Collins

Pretty reasonable right? Get the right people on the bus and you’ll be on your way. Finally the answer you’ve been looking for — “Get Better People”. See, you knew this management thing was easy all along!

If you take this “getting the right people on the bus” idea too far, you will over-rotate on people and short change the other factors that enable their success. People are a big part of a great company, yes, maybe the most important part, but they aren’t the only part. People work within a system and we often ignore improving that system in favor of easier answers.

“Blame the process, not the people.” — W. Edwards Deming

Understanding and changing an environment is hard. It is much easier to put a few people on a list, move them out, and hire a few shiny new folks. But as leaders, we have to ask if this “people first” approach is going to deliver the desired outcome?

Sure, it’s easy to track the movement of talent on an executive status report — it’s tidy, but is it creating a place where people can thrive? If your culture is divisive, fear based, or bureaucratic, will a few new folks really address the core issue? If teams need your approval to move any project ahead, will the new and improved team members be able to operate more autonomously than the existing ones?

The biggest risk of a talent centric mindset comes with new managers. Newly minted leaders often assume the team they have inherited is weak. It’s a natural point of view. If the team was performing, the new leader wouldn’t have been needed, or so the logic goes. Further, if the team couldn’t get the job done, why would a new leader expect that the current team can get it done in the future. After all, these people were here when it went bad — ergothey are bad and need to be replaced.

The tragedy of this perspective is that viewing your role as a bus driver filling seats misses the opportunity for true leadership. A bus driver lives within very tight constraints. They have to drive the bus they’ve been given, on the roads that exist today — but you’re not a bus driver. You can change the route, the bus, and even the roads. The game is complex, don’t limit yourself to only one move.

In the end, the simplicity of the bus analogy over simplifies. That is the real sin. As leaders, we know that simplicity sells, but we are not salespeople — we are running a business and livelihoods depend on us having more depth to our thinking. It’s our duty to face the tough issues in service to our people and the business.

None of this is saying you won’t have people that are not a fit and need to find success elsewhere. Most of us hate conflict, so check yourself to see if you are dodging the tough conversations with people you need to move out. But be self-aware enough to be sure you’re not firing good people stuck in a bad machine and avoiding the deep work you were hired to do.

As with most complex issues, the answers are not cookie cutter. Don’t take the easy path. Hiring and firing isn’t all we need you to do. You have the unique opportunity to create the environment for people to thrive. That’s the heavy lifting, and yeah, it’s your job.

If you enjoyed reading this, someone else might too — let them know by sharing.

I’m passionate about helping people win at work through leadership, communication and applying the lessons of design to everyday life. If you’re into that, get plugged in.

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Winning Products

Why Every Product Person Should Drive A Tesla

I made a huge mistake a few weeks ago. Tesla opened a new store near my home and I dropped in on their grand opening event for a test drive. The experience changed forever my conception of what a car could, and should, be. That wouldn't be so bad, except for that fact that the $100k+ price tag places it hopelessly out of reach, for now.

Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.
— Morpheus

I won't try to explain all the details of my visit - it wouldn't do any good. You wouldn't believe me anyway.  Some things need to be experienced, and a Tesla is one of those things.

It's been a long time since I've been floored by a product - knocked back on my heels by every aspect of the experience. Driving a Tesla is a take your breath away moment.

I've spent most of my life on product teams. Everyone who works on product teams knows they are supposed to deliver a winning product. Some measure that by revenue or profit, others by usage, and still others by how they stack up in the latest analyst rankings.  

The common wisdom is that a breakthrough product has to be 10x better than the current solution. If it's not, people won't go through the effort of switching. The unspoken mandate is to avoid incrementalism. The problem is, that most of us never pull it off. We get caught up in feature requests and backlogs and never reach escape velocity - engulfed by the whirlwind of the everyday.

Sometimes it takes a worthy competitor to force you to dig deep. To push yourself harder than you knew was possible.  To find that top gear you forgot you had. Mediocrity breeds mediocrity, but pressure creates diamonds. If you work at a traditional car company, you can be sure you are getting sharper because of Elon Musk. The status quo is no longer good enough.

The finest steel has to go through the hottest fire.
— Richard Nixon

Remember the first time you used an iPhone?  That experience forever changed how you thought about your phone.  A moment before, your Motorola Razr was state of the art - the best you could own.  And then, in a flash, it wasn't.

Nothing changed about the phone you owned. It still had exactly every feature it had a moment before. It was still fully functional, in fact it continued to be better than nearly every phone in existence, but now you knew. You had seen the future, and with that knowledge, you'd been forever changed.  You couldn't remove that splinter from your mind. The obvious future, once experienced, cannot be unfelt.

The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.
— William Gibson

This is what happens when you drive a Tesla.  Your conception of what a car can be is irrevocably shaken. A jilting snap, like the lurch of an earthquake - and now the world looks mostly the same, but it isn't. Something's changed.  Every other car now feels like a horse and buggy.

Electric cars are just better cars.
— Kevin Kelly

Here's the good news.  We will all drive Teslas soon, even if they are called Toyotas, Hondas, or Fords.  Now that the future is in plain sight, no one can hide. Today's high Model S prices have kept the automotive landscape calm, but the electric tidal wave is coming. In 2017 the $35k Model 3 will arrive and every other car company will be forced to adapt or die a slow death.

We have seen this before.  Flip phones are the past - smartphones are the now. Every phone is destined to be a smartphone. Apple may have led the way in merging phones and computers, but capitalism is ruthless, and companies feel no shame in fast following.  

The mistake people make is thinking the fast follower is following the leaders like Apple and Tesla, but they have it wrong.  The followers are following us.  They are following the buyer - they are following the consumers who will demand cars that add new features over the air in the same way as your phone.  Waiting until next year's model for adaptive cruise control is so last century.  A car that runs on dead dinosaurs? You mind as well try selling a corded phone.

If you are a product person, I encourage you to visit a Tesla store and take a test drive. It will remind you what breakthrough feels like.  If you're like me, it will inspire you to do better and maybe even strive to be the Tesla of your industry. To lead instead of reacting.

There will be a Tesla in your space, the only question is, will it be you?


Winning Products

Uncertainty & The Creative Life

I feel like a failure when I don't have an answer. Not knowing is uncomfortable. 

Discomfort is pain. The natural reaction is to dispatch the emotion as rapidly as possible. The downside of this approach is that the job of wrestling a problem to the ground and discovering the optimal solution becomes a secondary goal. In essence, we are prioritizing the removal of pain over the acquisition of truth. 

Marinading in the unknown and embracing uncertainty becomes more daunting once the ego is involved. We all have a certain view of ourselves - a mental model of our own importance to protect. Our ego tells us how important and smart we are, so naturally we must have all the answers. The reality of complexity threatens to shatter this mirage.

Early in the days of Flipboard, I remember catching up with Marcos Weskamp, their lead designer, over yogurt in Palo Alto. He proceeded to show me a mock up of the "add to Flipboard" button he was in the process of designing.

It was your typical plus sign [+]. Nothing to see here I thought, until he proceeded to show me more and more versions of this seemingly simple button.  Different borders, colors, shading, text, layout and on and on. Page after page, he flipped through the images on his iPad -  guiding me along his landscape of thought. Countless explorations until the right answer, at some future date, became clear - obvious. Flipboard has great design and exploring the edges of the unknown is what great designers do. 

Tolerate Ambiguity

Kent Beck

In the above video, the insightful Kent Beck reminds us that it's ok to not know. It's ok to wait on an answer as more information comes to light. To let a solution emerge over time and to not beat yourself up. After all, there is an opportunity cost to how you spend your time today. Right now is the most valuable moment - a dollar today is worth more than a dollar tomorrow. You must choose how you spend right now wisely and not build just because you can.

The natural state during the design process is to lack information.  You won't have all the information you need, so a key skill for a designers to "tolerate ambiguity".

Hammering the point home, Mr. Beck references one of my all-time favorite movies, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. In that film, Mr. Wonka is watching Augustus Gloop, one of the nasty kids, stuck helplessly in a tube, pressure building up behind from the chocolate river blocked by Gloop's portly physique. As we wait for his eventual launching, like a bullet from a gun, Mr. Wonka says:

"The suspense is terrible, I hope it will last." - Willy Wonka

I love this as a mantra. It changes uncertainty from something to avoid and fervently dispatch, to an experience to relish. You can't take the first answer as it comes to you. You have to wait until it is obvious. Keep going until the pattern is clear - undeniable.

There is an purity in this approach - it honors the creative process.

It reminds me of when Seth Godin says "This might not work" - urging us to live in the space between knowing and not trying. Great designers can relax into this space. They can dance with uncertainty and let the solution emerge - not jumping at an answer to relieve the pain.


In fact, often the best thing you can do is wait. Increase your experience set until you are confident. Talk to more customers, play with different shapes, get outside and go for a walk. Do what you must to re-arrange the world until you feel solid in your direction. After all, early decisions constrain future ones, so they are critical to get right.  As Ryan Singer says, "design is a path-dependent process."

"Our early design decisions are like bets whose outcome we will have to live with iteration after iteration. Since that's the case, there is a strong incentive to be sure about our early bets. In other words, we want to reduce uncertainty on the first iterations. " - Ryan Singer

It's ok not to know. It's ok to wait. Embrace uncertainty as a joyful part of the creative process.

It's what great designers do.


How to Get 22.8% Better in 5 Minutes a Day

The Daily Reflection

For years, I’ve heard about the power of closing out your days with a few moments of reflection. Taking the time to pause briefly, consider the day’s events, and jot down your highest priorities for the next day.

A recent working paper in Harvard Business Review got me thinking about this again. The researchers evaluated the performance of several groups of consultants undergoing training. During the training, one group was asked to reflect on the course material, noting the key lessons in their mind, and the other did not. It turns out, the group that reflected quietly on their day performed much, much better. How much better?  Try 22.8% better, all from simply reflecting on the experience.

Then I saw an article by Eric Barker noteing that bestselling author Dan Pink gives similar advice:

Establish a closing ritual. Know when to stop working. Try to end each work day the same way, too. Straighten up your desk. Back up your computer. Make a list of what you need to do tomorrow. 

This process of reflection is hitting the bookshelves too. In a recent Inc article, CEO coach Eric Bregman's book 18 Minutes and his 5 minute end of day reflection is highlighted. Here's his process:

  1. How did the day go? What success did I experience? What challenges did I endure?
  2. What did I learn today? About myself? About others? What do I plan to do--differently or the same--tomorrow?
  3. Whom did I interact with? Anyone I need to update? Thank? Ask a question of? Share feedback with?

As someone who is always looking for the next productivity hack, a scant 5 minutes a day seemed like a no brainer.  So after reviewing several sources, and some testing on my own, here is what I came up:

  1. Think back on the day. What went well? Was anything frustrating or challenging? Based on this reflection, what lessons did you learn about yourself, your team, or your company? Write at least two and be specific.
  2. Who did you interact with today? Anyone you need to update? Thank? Ask a question of? Share feedback with? Add any actions to your task list.
  3. What are the 1-3 “must do" items for tomorrow to make the biggest impact?  Add a calendar item to tomorrow for each action.

In order to prompt myself with these questions every day, I added an appointment on my calendar for 5:30pm each day. You could use anything - a post it, a recurring task, or iOS reminders. Feel free to use whatever tool you like, but try to give the daily reflection an honest go and see if it works for you.

I will update this post as time goes on to share how it’s working out for me. I’d love to hear from you too - what you’d change about the questions and if you’re finding any impact on your life.

Drop me a note in the comments on how it works out! 


Nutrition Rules



10 simple rules that have worked for me, so far.

  1. Sleep.  I shoot for 8 hours a night.  Bed at 10pm, usually rising by 6am.  Cool, dark room.  Limit screens immediately before going to sleep.   If you're on a mac, use Night Mode or  f.lux. Occasional meditation. [Lights Out]

  2. Limit Sugar, Eat Plants.  I avoid all sugary drinks (and artificial sweeteners), and limit fruit to an afternoon snack.   Every meal should include some vegetables or greens. 

  3. Avoid Grains.  These are anti-nutrients and are causal of clinical inflammation.  No bread, cookies, crackers, etc. [Grain BrainWhy We Get Fat]

  4. Eat High Quality Protein.  Steak, fish, chicken, shrimp, eggs, etc.  I eat at least 50g. On workout days I shoot for 150g.  I avoid protein powders and shoot for real food. [Archevore, Paul Jaminet]

  5. Eat Healthy Fats/Avoid Vegetable Oils.  I don't eat vegetable oils.  I tend to cook with butter or olive oil.  I get other fats from avocado, eggs and steak. [Peter Attia]

  6. Fast for 16-18 hours per day.  Learned from Martin Berkhan.  He is the guru of Intermittent Fasting.  This approach has given me more focus in the morning, reduced my caloric intake, and made diet adherence much easier.  I typically stop eating at 7pm and break the fast at 12pm or 1pm the next day.  During the fasting window, I only have black coffee. Every week or so, I extend the fast to 24hrs.(ie. skip dinner) [Brad Pilon, Jason Fung]

  7. Lift Heavy Things. Two days a week I lift weights.  I stay in the 5-8 rep range and rest as much as I need between sets.  One day a week I do an hour of highly variable cardio.  There are lots of good programs out there, this is just what I do. [Starting Strength]

  8. (Safe) Starches.  I try to eat some veggies with every meal (broccoli, cauliflower, zucchini, etc).  Post workout I'll eat more rice or potatoes. In the past, I avoided all carbs and was chronically hungry.  I also could not get below about 12% bodyfat.  Now that hunger is not an issue, I have avoided the binging that plagued my previous very low carb (VLC) approach. [Perfect Health Diet]

  9. No Snacking.  This one is perhaps more controversial, but I have found that after following a clean diet, I still wanted less body fat.  Lowering calories on non-workout days helped with that goal in a big way. One trick is to stop snacking.  Eating even a single bite of food starts the craving process.  I find if I stick to 2 meals a day and some dark chocolate (>72%) and maybe wine at night, I eat less and eat healthier. When I want to get leaner, I eliminate the chocolate and alcohol.

  10. Supplement Wisely.  

I should note one last thing. Be patient. Meaningful change takes time. Trust the process and stick with it. Give these ideas 2-3 months and see what happens. A week or two is not enough to see big differences. Relax, let go of expectation and pressure. Just enjoy the ride. The new you will emerge. Feel free to give it a go and let me know what works (or didn't work) for you.

The above list is currently what I find useful, but diet is an ongoing experiment for me.  I will revise this over time as I learn more.

I'm currently experimenting with infared sauna and cold thermogenesis