Faster Horses

People claim that if Henry Ford built what people asked for, we wouldn’t have cars; we’d have faster horses. This statement is more myth than truth, but the idea holds water. When I worked at GE, my users wanted “more storage” or “faster file transfer” when designing gas turbines. But these solutions were costly and […]

Red, Yellow, and Green Energy

Imagine you could plug yourself into a power outlet and work all night. Like a computer, you could crank away around the clock at a steady pace. Fortunately or unfortunately, humans don’t work like this (yet), so we must deal with the moist, temperamental machines inside our heads. Unlike computers, our brains perform at varying […]

Appetite Planning

With resolutions, our eyes are often bigger than our stomachs. It’s easy to set big, hairy, audacious, pie-in-the-sky goals without the time or energy to pursue them. Basecamp, a company that builds collaboration tools, runs many internal projects with appetite-based planning. Instead of saying, “We want a new email app with XYZ features by July,” they […]

A Ritual of Retrospectives

New Year’s Resolutions are forward-looking—commitments we make (and likely don’t keep) with ourselves to create a future we’d like to inhabit. But if we don’t consider the past, we might set our sights on the wrong destination. Retrospectives are a means to reflect on past performance and garner lessons to apply in the future. One-off […]

The Hedgehog & The Fox

The Fox knows many things, and the Hedgehog knows one big thing. Presented in a 1953 book of the same title, The Hedgehog and The Fox defines a survival strategy. The Fox has many tactical skills, is clever at getting unstuck, and can figure out how to make things happen through adaptability. The Hedgehog has a conviction on […]

The Overton Window

What is tolerable to the public? What will 80% of people tolerate? The Overton Window defines the answer to these questions as it sets the acceptable range of ideas in culture. Both sides of the political aisle and major media companies—no matter how different they seem—share ideas within a relatively narrow scope. The public (or […]

New Math

I’m forever surprised by the strength of imprints. Despite overwhelming evidence that says otherwise, sugary breakfast cereals never feel unhealthy. This bias makes us hesitant to new ways of learning, doing, and thinking. Consider basic math. I learned to add 156+249 like this: “New math” suggests this method: I struggled with math as a kid, but this […]

Astroturfing

An army of Twitter bots disguised as real people complain about cannibal rights. “The meatpacking industry is suppressing #CannibalRights!” “#FreeOurDiet from Big Meat’s stranglehold” “People have eaten people for centuries. Suppressing #cannibalism is cultural erasure!” Next, real Twitter accounts catch onto the idea due to herd instincts and a desire to hop on the “bandwagon.” […]

Poisoning the Well

A boss arranges one-on-one meetings with two underperforming employees: Becky and Bill. He plans to fire one of them. Boss: “Becky, why did you fail to meet this quarter’s performance goals?” Becky: *explains* Boss: “Thanks, Becky. Can you please tell Bill I’m ready?” Becky: “Of course. Assuming he’s on time this morning. You know how […]

Gaslighting

In the 1944 film Gas Light, a husband turns on and off gaslights at night. When she brings it up in the morning, he tells her he didn’t experience the flickering gaslights. The malicious husband continues this charade until she loses her mind, so he can commit her to an insane asylum and pocket her inheritance. […]

Jakob’s Law & Decorum

Jakob Nielsen had a simple principle in web design: People expect your site to work like all others. People spend 99% of their time on other websites, so conforming to the model of those sites will make your site more palatable. For instance, social sites have a log-in button in the top right, news sites […]

First, Do No Harm

George Washington was out late riding his horse, got caught in the rain, and developed a sore throat. The next day, his doctor came to heal him. The doctor sliced open George and drained him of blood, a common medical practice in the 18th century. Due to lost blood, George died. The healing (bloodletting) caused […]

Unforced Errors

Tennis players make two errors: Forced. The player errors because of their opponent, like not returning a powerful first serve. Unforced. The player errors because of their mistakes, like serving into the net twice. What separates professionals from amateurs is the ratio of forced-to-unforced errors. The professional makes few unforced errors—they manage themselves to counter […]

The Sorting Hat

Some college friends were in town, so I joined them to watch Michigan clobber Iowa for the Big-Ten championship. Like most good friendships, we picked up where we left off. We caught up on events from our post-grad lives—jobs, places lived, and partners come and gone. Despite this effortless connection, I couldn’t help but think […]

Framestorming

You can’t help but wonder: Is this the right problem? Brainstorming is fine, but you might solve the wrong problem without the right frame. Framestorming is a method to generate multiple questions and problems before considering solutions. In the words of Einstein: “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking […]

Five Whys

You find out your team wants to deprecate a legacy codebase, but you don’t know why. So, you embrace your inner five-year-old and ask: “Why?” “To clear up tech debt.” “Why?” “To easily launch new features.” “Why?” “To attract new customers.” “Why?” “To earn more money.” “Why?” “The CEO wants to buy a new beach […]

In What Context?

You pass an old mare at pasture as you approach the farmhouse-style tech office. You enter the office and head to the conference room. “We should kill it.” You hear. “Yeah, it’s old, and no one uses it anymore, and it wastes resources keeping it live.” “Agreed. Becky, let’s kill HORSE.” “Don’t kill the horse!” […]

Luck Surface Area

Leprechauns Patricia and Patrick collect lucky objects, such as rabbit’s feet and four-leaf clovers. But their approaches are wildly different. Patricia is a hard worker—spending 17 hours per day scouring fields for a four-leaf clover. She’s regimented, but she’s too busy to tell anyone about it. A friend could’ve pointed her to a quiet meadow […]

Whitespace

Writing is more than words. It’s how we present words. Whitespace is a neglected element—not a passive background but an active ingredient for expressing a thought. Adding space to writing gives readers breathing room and makes content more palatable. Whether writing articles, emails, or text messages, whitespace provides clarity. Four ways to use whitespace: Variable […]

A Map is Not the Territory

Hiker Hillary ends up lost, the trail nowhere in sight. “This can’t be!” She frets. “The map says there’s a trail right here!” Hillary curls into a ball and waits for the trail to materialize. A map is a useful abstraction of the territory, but it’s imperfect—it may be dated, insufficient, or just plain wrong. The “map” […]

The Mythical Mother Month

Clarence wants a baby. Clarence reasons that a baby requires nine months of effort, so rather than one woman spending nine months, he could have nine women spending one month. Since Clarence doesn’t want to wait nine months for his wife to give birth, he gathers eight other women into a room and tells them […]

Cheap, Fast, and Good

People want an excellent product delivered quickly for a low price. But it often becomes a “you pick two” scenario. If it’s good and fast, it won’t be cheap (i.e., luxury cars) If it’s good and cheap, it won’t be fast (i.e., non-profit projects) If it’s cheap and fast, it won’t be good (i.e., fast […]

Alligators & Kittens

A sad woman in Louisiana loves kittens, as their little meows fill her with joy. So, she adopts a dozen kittens and brings them to her house in the bayou, which is crawling with alligators. These slimy reptiles make her sad and stressed, so the kittens are a welcome relief. But after a few days, […]

Don’t be caught by the passive voice

Passive voice is objectively wrong in any writing—business, academic, or artistic. Edge cases exist, but the passive voice is often unclear, imprecise, and disempowering. Language represents an underlying philosophy, so shift language to represent philosophy better. We are not objects acted upon by the world; we are subjects that act upon the world. To avoid passive voice, start with […]

Inversion is Not

Inversion is not thinking forward. It’s thinking backward. Inversion is not pursuing positive outcomes. It’s avoiding negative inputs. Inversion is not converging. It’s diverging. Inversion is an approach to solving problems by flipping the direction. Let’s say a company wants to increase employee output. Their first approach is to mandate office attendance to better monitor labor. An […]