The Boydian Lowball

November 28, 2008 — 12 Comments

John Boyd had a rule that whenever he was using data as support for an argument, he’d deflate the numbers to understate his case. The idea was use lower number while making a strong case; when he was challenged and fact checked, it’d always be worse when the new calculations came in. A lot of people confuse this with managing expectation, but it’s a philosophically different way to think about strategy. Generally, he figured, that when people have a big stick they use it. To not use it, to keep it hidden, the mark of a different breed of person.

Here it is in a common form: You’re criticizing the moves of a program that you’re trying to restructure to the person responsible for making the change. The program keeps most of their information hidden because they’re upside down and don’t want to admit it. You’re certain they’re spending X and end up being wrong – it’s over. You say they’re spending X (on the high end of your spectrum) and end up being right – the reward is small and the risk was significant. Simply being right, you’ll find, is not as rewarding as it should be. So instead, you make the case with the lowest X you can justify and cede the verification to the person you’re pushing for change- the results turn the passive observer into an active participant. Since they were involved in the discovery, it’s their torch to carry now.

But that’s hard. You want to use the stick when you have it. You want to go for the win now because you want the credit, you want to be right, you don’t want another participant – you don’t like pretense when you have a sure thing. But think of it like being leveraged in a market position, it’s great until you blow up. And it only takes one time.

Using conservative inputs gives way to conservative outputs. A good operating plan leaves as many options on the table as possible. Conservative outputs give you space to move. Assumptions about data can be thought about the same way. Restraint is the mark of good strategy, even when you’re being aggressive. Round down your numbers, tone your bio, leave the hyperbole to someone else. Keep the stick hidden and think about the next move.

What I’m Reading

November 26, 2008 — 8 Comments

Spin : How to Turn the Power of the Press to Your Advantage by Michael Sitrick (good, surprisingly relevant considering it was written almost 10 years ago)

Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law by Martha C. Nussbaum (sort of just flipping through it at this point)

Spin-Free Economics by Nariman Behravesh (I was kind of hoping this would be an economics primer but really it’s mostly just a collection of the commonly held beliefs of modern economists)

Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary by Juan Williams (very interesting guy – it’s becoming much more common that I’m disappointing in the actual writing of the book. this was a good example)

Hemingway vs. Fitzgerald: The Rise and Fall of a Literary Friendship by Scott Donaldson (flipping through for research purposes. Hemingway destroyed Fitzgerald in one bold move)

Robert Kennedy and His Times by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr (I read a couple others and big chunk of this one. Everybody kept saying he was super ruthless and JFK’s enforcer but I didn’t find one interesting example, not ONE)

-Klosterman’s review of Chinese Democracy is actually really good, I was going the buy it on Amazon after but of course couldn’t because GNR did one of those obnoxious exclusive deals and there was no way I was driving to Best Buy

-Denis from Wikinomics responded to me calling him an asshole. He seems like a smart guy and as always, the book is fantastic.

-Somebody stole from Daniel at Cracked, who is a cool guy. He also managed to find and move into the single worst neighborhood in Los Angeles for almost no reason.

-Dickersonian questions are something I’d like to start using

A Side to Err

November 25, 2008 — 4 Comments

Add San Francisco, New York, D.C, Las Vegas and Shreveport to the cities I’ve run in over the last few months. Add it to a foot and a half of sidewalk 50 unprotected feet above the intersection of the 110 and 101 freeways, and holes on the back of my heels so big that my socks were healing into my skin and rain, and 2 in the morning and most of the neighborhood between downtown Los Angeles and Beverly Hills – Koreatown, Hancock Park, Los Feliz, the Hollywood Hills, the barrio, below Crenshaw and Venice.

It’s what people with energy do. Before you know it you’ve racked up a history that you never intended to make because every time you came to a choice between more effort and more of the same, you chose the former.

The Worst Thing About Blogs

November 19, 2008 — 34 Comments

is that they never let reality get in the way of a good post.

-Here’s Guy Kawasaki falling prey to a textbook case of the selection bias and using a non-representative sample.

-Here’s one of the writers at Wikinomics bragging about Starbucks’ successful social media strategy a few days after they reported earnings were down by 97% PERCENT and its shares lost two thirds of their value almost instantly.

-Here’s Hugh MacLeod (who this aside is wonderful) self-referencing the “blue monster” for the 400th time, apparently unaware that Microsoft isn’t just culturally irrelevant but actively not “changing the world.”

-Here’s Steve Rubel misunderstanding incentives that some crappy new Mahalo program creates. (Hint: Rewards for searching translate into more worthless searches by people trying to get prizes)

-Here’s Michael Arrington (who is the worst) not noticing an incredibly obvious flaw in a textbook rental startup, letting an outlier skew the results by adding TMZ’s revenue to an acquisition it wasn’t a part of, and finally, projecting a yearly revenue estimate based off 3 weeks of data from an unofficial source in the middle of a financial crisis less than a month after the product launched.

To be fair, it’s not really blogs fault so much as it’s a product of low-level thinking. Scientists and psychologists do their research in these fields for a reason – to help us think clearer and more accurately. Breathlessly chasing the first lead you find without constantly checking it against the world around you is a dangerous way and unproductive way to think.

If we can deduce anything from the blogs above, it also makes you 1) Sound like an idiot 2) Act like an asshole 3) Always get it wrong

Update: Wikinomics responds – Dealing with backlash in the blogosphere: a personal experience

Falling Short as a Good Thing

November 16, 2008 — 5 Comments

When I think about my criticism of other people, I’m disappointed to see how much of it could be more honestly laid bare as “be more like me.” Or when I sit down to lay out a plan of action for someone, how conveniently the course aligns with my natural disposition. If I notice a flaw somewhere, I’m starting to think, and it happens to correspond with one of my own strengths maybe I ought to relinquish claims to judgment.

It’s not pleasant to root out rationalization and subjectivity. You rob yourself of the right to indignation, an intoxicating position. Every time I dig around, I watch as the boxes I’ve trapped people in just disappear along with my superiority. The reality is that the smear of low level mediocrity never shines brighter than on a person unknowingly reacting to something inside them. In fact, the truly impressive part of Gladwell’s New Yorker piece on artists is not his thesis but the fact that it has nothing to do with him. He transcends his own place in the discussion.

So the bold move when you encounter hypocrites may be ignoring the desire to dismiss them. The real question: would you really want to listen to someone whose moral philosophy was just as easily done as it was said?