Unknown Unknowns

Noah Brier has a great analysis of the true origins of the ‘Unknown unknowns’ framework which looks something like this:


Despite being brought to wide attention by Donald Rumsfeld’s remarks about Iraq, the concept has origins that seemingly stretch further back and derive from a military procurement context. The framework is a useful way of categorising risk but also reminding us that unknown unknowns are potentially dangerous territory, precisely because they are unknown. Noah pulls out a quote (referenced by Rumsfeld in his memoir) from nuclear strategist/game theorist Thomas Schelling who wrote about Pearl Harbour that it was not true that the US government was caught napping at the time. Rarely, says Schelling, has a government been more expectant but they just expected wrong:

‘There is a tendency in our planning to confuse the unfamiliar with the improbable. The contingency we have not considered seriously looks strange; what looks strange is thought improbable; what is improbable need not be considered seriously.’

This is a problem in business. Particularly when we live in an era when the seemingly impossible can become possible very quickly. Not only do we shy away from seriously considering the improbable, but when the improbable happens we struggle to appreciate the threat and/or respond in the right way. As I’ve written before the temptation in the face of unpredictability is often for leaders to demand certainty through rigid plans or precise outcomes when in reality what is needed when faced with complex or unknown scenarios is strategy that is far more emergent. We need to look for patterns through experimentation. We need greater manouevrability.

The Angel in The Marble


‘Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it. I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.’ Michelangelo

I happened across this Michelangelo quote via this Hidden Brain podcast on the subject of marriage, and I rather liked it. Social psychologist Eli Finkel describes in the podcast his ideas around the all or nothing marriage, and how our expectations around marriage have grown to such an extent that a marriage that would have been acceptable to us in the 1950s would likely be a disappointment to us today, but also how the flip side of that is that with investment and work modern marriages can be more amazing than ever. Finkel uses the quote as a metaphor for how a great marriage can bring out the best of what’s already there and enable both partners to flourish.

Digging around a bit I came across this post from Editor and Screenwriter Nils Parker which uses the quote as a metaphor for the process of editing manuscripts:

‘Before they get to me, most manuscripts are essentially a collection of strong ideas and great stories that have been suffocated by authorial self-doubt, insecurity, and bias. My job, as the editor, is to clear all of that away and expose the greater truths that sit at the core of these stories. I shape the words around the mold created by their intent so that the ideas may come to life like they already do in the minds of their creators. The process is very much like a sculptor’s—an artist in an artisan’s body, chipping away at the rock diligently and purposefully until the image reveals itself.’

For Michelangelo, says Parker, the idea is already there inside the hunk of stone, and the eyes and hands of the sculptor are merely vessels through which it can be brought into the physical world. The post also references Michelangelo’s thoughts on the differences between sculpture as an artform, and that of painting:

‘By sculpture I mean that which is fashioned by the effort of cutting away, that which is fashioned by the method of building up being like unto painting.’

I’ve been reading around Professor Dan Cable’s work on the power of employees bringing their best selves into the work environment. It strikes me that in building high performing teams we too often think of a leader’s job as being like the painter, building (knowledge) and adding layers (of capability) when actually a large part of the job is in cutting away the things that can get in the way of enabling people to be their true and best selves.

Image source


I wrote something about scale over on the agile business blog. About how in order to scale sometimes you need to do things that don’t scale, and how difficult this can be in an organisation that is used to only thinking in terms of top-down, big projects, large spend, significant near-term return. The ability to hand-craft an experience for a few early-stage customers by getting direct feedback from them can be challenging in an environment more used to using research to identify scaled opportunities, then developing products at some distance from the people who will actually end up using them, and spending big on marketing and sales people to take it to market. 

Sam Altman, president of Y-Combinator, has a nice way of describing how the first thing that you need to concentrate on is on building a product that is so good that people spontaneously want to use it and tell their friends about it and how that often comes from spending a disproportionate amount of time focusing on things (like obsessing over the early stage experience and talking directly to your earliest users to learn) that don’t have an apparent immediate scaled payback or, in the context of a more traditional mindset, look like they are too small to be meaningful.

Then your scaling challenges are less about generating demand, and more about keeping the experience exceptional as you manage that demand. This, a far better challenge to have, is the good kind of ‘blitz scale’ as he calls it.

Too often we see mediocre products where money and resources are spent on generation demand to get scale, rather than flipping that mindset and doing things early on that don’t scale in order to create a more continuous momentum.

I’m not sure what I think of the phrase ‘blitz-scaling’ but Reid Hoffman, who also does Stanford classes on the topic, has a book coming out on it in October and if it’s anything like his Masters of Scale podcast there should be lots of good learning in it.

On Creating a Purpose-Driven Organisation

I’ve been driving back and forth to Kent over the past week (long story) so my podcast consumption has dramatically increased. This HBR Ideacast on creating a purpose driven organisation was fascinating (there’s an article here on the same theme but the podcast is better) and it contained a few nuggets that I want to cut out and keep.

The podcast centres around an interview with Gerry Anderson, CEO of DTE Energy, and researchers Robert Quinn and Anjan Thakor, and the story of how that company recovered from a financial crisis point in 2008 to triple its stock price in under ten years and not only survive, but achieve some quite spectacular results. 

My highlights…

  • On the power of honesty and belief in your employees:

‘We went to our people and told them that this was a very big event we were facing. We couldn’t promise how it would turn out, but we would promise one thing. We promised that the last lever we would pull to protect the integrity of the company would be a layoff. That we’d do everything in our power to prevent it. But in return, we said there’s something we need to ask of you. You need to go to bat for this company with an energy level and an intensity and a level of creativity that you never have before.’ (Anderson)

  • On the power of ‘discretionary energy’ as Gerry calls it:

‘I mean it’s a simple thing, but if you want a company to be excellent you have to draw people’s discretionary energy, their extra energy. Well, what do you give your extra energy to? I give it to things I care about and believe in.’ (Anderson)

  • On discovery:

‘…you don’t invent a purpose, you discover it…and oftentimes it’s latent.’ (Thakor)

  •  On evolving your purpose:

‘I realized that we needed to move from preservation to aspiration. And that…we needed to turn our people’s energy outward and help them realize that…we could be a force for growth and prosperity in our city and our community and in our state.’ (Anderson)

  • On authenticity:

‘The moment you have a purpose that’s authentic it becomes the arbitrator of every decision. Every decision is made in relation to that purpose.’ (Quinn)

  • On purpose-driven goals:

‘…you move from ego goals to contribution goals. And we have lots of science that shows you function differently when your purpose is to contribute to the welfare of the whole, or the welfare of other people. Purpose-driven people live proactively. They know why they’re here. They know what they’re trying to contribute.’ (Quinn)

There’s so much rubbish written about purpose, and so much cynicism, probably because it is usually either ignored or appallingly implemented. Meaningless value statements on the wall that are not representative of leadership behaviour, priorities or what people see every day.

People want to believe. They want to do work that means something. That’s why when it’s done right, it is properly transformative.

The Buxton Index, and the Rhythm of Business

‘The Buxton Index of an entity, i.e. person or organization, is defined as the length of the period, measured in years, over which the entity makes its plans.’

I came across the ‘Buxton Index’ via this Shane Parrish podcast with Patrick Collison founder of Stripe (which is really worth a listen). Seemingly originated by Professor John Buxton at Warwick University, and brought to wider attention by its use in this essay on the strengths of the academic enterprise by pioneering computer scientist Edsger W Dijkstra, the index is not a widely-known business concept but it is an interesting one. The idea of the index is that entities have different planning horizons that they are fundamentally working towards (so for a politician who is seeking re-election it may be four years but for a manager striving to reach a quarterly target it will be much shorter) and that when co-operation is required between entities operating to very different Buxton indices tensions can arise. 

In an era when horizontal collaboration within organisations and across entities is critical for advantage and adaptability, it’s an idea that has perhaps taken on a new level of significance. Poor cross-functional working slows organisations down, wastes time and does not support genuinely customer-centric ways of working. Some functions within an organisation may be working for longer-term survival and gain (for example on things like procurement or data security), others may be needing to make decisions faster. The tensions that can arise from this difference can act as a drag on agility and quick decision-making, particularly when unacknowledged. Better appreciation of the differences can lead to a deeper understanding of motivations and so aid better collaboration.

In the book I used Stewart Brand’s pace layering concept to describe the difference in rates of change involved in a transformation process – simply put some things (like customer needs and changes to tactics and workflows) are likely to change much quicker than others (like the culture or vision of an organisation). Being aware of the rate of change, and also achieving the right balance between comfort and urgency for people, makes change a lot more productive and achievable.

But pace-layering also speaks to another under-appreciated tension. As well as the different planning horizons that various entities and areas of the business work to, we need to be aware of the different operating rhythms that characterise discrete functions and teams. Difficulties arise when the operating cycles (annual, quarterly, monthly, weekly) that teams work to are different or even conflicting. One team for example wants to move fast but are dependent on another team that operates at a much slower rhythm so it slows them down. This becomes particularly important when you are introducing agile ways of working at scale to a business, where teams operating at a faster tempo are bumping up against others that are aligned to longer cycles or waterfall approaches. It’s no good trying to get rapid customer feedback on a feature that you’ve developed if the release cycle means that customers won’t see it for another six weeks. An under-appreciation of rhythm means that dependencies can quickly become blockers. Greater foresight and flexibility in processes and decision-making can mean that necessary but different ways of working can accommodate different demands better.

So we ignore the rhythms of a business at our peril. Perhaps I should call this Perkin index?

‘The Perkin index of an entity i.e. person, team or organisation is defined as the tempo, measured in time for single operating cycle, at which the entity works’

Post of the Month – July 2018 – The Vote

Thanks for the nominations. BBH Labs’ World Cup of Books has been nominated and although it’s slightly beyond the norm I’ve included it as it was a good celebration of great writing and rather fun, and I’ve also included a great talk from Paul Adams which is not strictly a post, but hey. So our vote this month is between:

Brand purpose without all the nonsense by Andy Whitlock

The death of Don Draper by Ian Leslie

Targeted messaging is only one piece of the advertising puzzle from Rory Sutherland

The Identity Battle by Thas Naseemuddeen

The End of Naval Gazing from Paul Adams

The World Cup of Advertising Books by BBH Labs

And you can vote below…